Guess what? I made you a present!

September marks my second blogaversary.  Yay!  Confetti and balloons! I love writing, and this blog provides me with a pretty painless way to publish.  I'm so grateful for this opportunity.

And I'm so grateful to all of you, who read and share and comment and re-post.  You guys clicked 24,600+ times this past year.  Wow.  That blows me away.

So, to say thank you, I made you a present:

My first ebook!  Ta-da!

Devotional Cover

This is the series I did for Advent last year, using the text of Handel's Messiah.  25 readings for the month of December.

I thought you might appreciate having it all in one easy place, to use again this year.  (And I've done a little tweaking, so hopefully it's better this time around.)

The book is my gift to you, so it's TOTALLY FREE for the next three days until midnight on Sept 8th (Pacific time).

FREE

FOR

THREE 

DAYS!!!!

Please click here to download it for yourself.

When you get over to Amazon, click on the little "Send as a gift" button, and email it to people.

Recommend it to your Sunday School class, to your Twelve-Step Group, to your mail carrier.

Share it on Facebook, Tweet it, Instagram it, whatever.  Go crazy.

It's free for anybody and everybody who wants it!  

(For the next three days.  After that, Amazon wants their money.)

And then, if you would be so kind, would you WRITE A REVIEW, so that people who don't know us might actually download it, too, someday?  That would be fabulous!

So, click over, download, and let me know how you like your present!

If you don't have an e-reader, you can click here to download free software for your computer to view kindle books.

***A big huge thank you to my husband, Andy, who made the technology happen on this project.  I am so technology-averse, and he makes it all better.***

***And thanks to my son, Michael, who took the cover photo.***

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what i got instead

So after I wrote about floating a couple of weeks ago, I kept thinking about floating. The fact that it works.  EVERY.  SINGLE.  TIME.

If I stretch myself out on the water, I will float.

Water can't change the rules.

And it seems like such a great picture of the character and promises of God.

I AM.

Faithful.  True.  The Resurrection.  The Way.  The Beginning.  The End.

Nothing can separate.

And I believe these things are true.

But here's the thing that happens to me.  I get out on the water, eyes on the prize, and I sink.

And I think I'm trusting God and following His Will and then I'm sucking salt water.

So it makes me wonder.

What is faith, anyway?  This substance of things hoped for, this evidence of things unseen.

Isn't it supposed to DO something?  Solve problems?  Shut the mouths of lions?  Put armies to flight?  Heal people?  Protect my kids?  Get my friend a job?

Why am I not just floating through life with the greatest of ease?

It's so easy to listen to the insidious voice of the accuser:  you're not doing it right.  Pray harder.  Read your Bible better.  Trust more.

But there are things that are just so big, so painful, so inexplicable.  Times when we know we didn't do anything wrong--in fact, we were doing everything right.  But here we are, in the pit.

Facing a Diagnosis.

Dealing with the consequences of somebody else's sin.

Living with life problems that just won't go away.

Just trying to get up out of bed and make it through the day.

The other day, somebody said to me, "Don't give me that answer about God being bigger than we know, and having answers we don't understand."

And he's right.  It's such a bad answer, from any human perspective.

But it's also the only answer I know.

That God is infinitely bigger than I am.

And that His love is infinitely bigger than I can understand.

And that His redemption is at hand, always.

Even when things are terrible, and I am sinking like a rock.

And so, I circle back to this again:  it's not about me.

When I am doing nothing wrong, and when I am doing everything wrong, His love encompasses me, always and forever.

That's what never fails, never goes wrong:  His Love.

I won't always float well.  I will thrash, I will flail, I will sink.

And, for me, the only way to get past this is to live through everything being exactly how I didn't want it, and then being able to look back and say, "Oh.  Redemption."

Whether I float well or not, God redeems.

And that experience builds the kind of faith I want to have.  The kind of faith that lets go and lets God.  No matter what.

I love this song by Sarah Groves.  It reminds that God has better things for me than I can ever dare to think, hope, or dream.

Even--and maybe even especially--when it's not what I wanted.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPWWyoD5dvI]

Tuxedo in the closet, gold band in a box Two days from the altar she went and called the whole thing off What he thought he wanted, what he got instead Leaves him broken and grateful

I passed understanding a long, long time ago And the simple home of systems and answers we all know What I thought I wanted, what I got instead Leaves me broken and somehow peaceful

I keep wanting you to be fair But that's not what you said I want certain answers to these prayers But that's not what you said

When I get to heaven I'm gonna go find Job I want to ask a few hard questions, I want to know what he knows About what it is he wanted and what he got instead How to be broken and faithful

What I thought I wanted What I thought I wanted What I thought I wanted What I thought I wanted

Staring in the water like Esop's foolish dog I can't help but reflect on what it was I almost lost What it was I wanted, what I got instead Leaves me broken and grateful

I'm broken and grateful I want to be broken and grateful I want to be broken, peaceful, faithful, grateful, grateful I want to be broken, peaceful, faithful, grateful, grateful

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grieving and living and grateful

I have a little stack of books that can never be loaned to any one. These books live on my nightstand, wherever my nightstand happens to be.  They go in my carry-on luggage, because the airlines are welcome to lose my undies, but they can never be trusted with my preciouses.

I have Brennan Manning's book, Abba's Child.  I have something by Henri Nouwen, usually The Inner Voice of Love, but sometimes Turn My Mourning Into Dancing.  And I have Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies.

Last night, I went over to a church in Fort Worth to hear Anne Lamott speak, and it was a night of splendiferous awesomeness.

Because Anne is hilarious and human and she makes me want to trust Jesus more, and be bravely myself.

And because Andy and my friend Christie went too, and you can't have splendierous awesomeness without fellow appreciators.

And mostly because Traveling Mercies helped save my life back in 2003.  She taught me how to grieve.  And through grieving, I am learning how to be more alive, and less fearful, in the world.

From her essay, Ladders in Traveling Mercies:

All those years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible and as privately.  But what I've discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.

Don't get me wrong:  grief sucks; it really does.  Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit.  Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible.  You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession.  Martyrdom can't be beat.  While too much exercise works for some people, it doesn't for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering.  But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you.  A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart.  But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won't hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion.  You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things:  softness and illumination.

Yup.  That's the truth.  The kind that sets you free.

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breakfast at mcdonald's

sitag ladies Last Friday I had breakfast at McDonald's with a bunch of my chicas from Solomon Islands days.

And my friend Martha (red shirt, no scarf) had brought along some photos from another breakfast at McDonald's in Cairns, Australia in June 2000.

That particular breakfast at McDonald's came at a difficult time in all our lives.  We had just spent 5 days on HMS Tobruk, an Australian tank transport, after being evacuated from the Solomons with 15 minutes'  notice.  (Seriously.  They called at 4:45 and said we had to be at the wharf at 5:00.  My friend Roxanne said that potential looters would see that her house had been pre-ransacked, and move along.  But all that is a story for another day.  Let me know if you want to hear it.)

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When Martha plunked this picture down on the table the other morning, we talked about the other couple in this picture with Andy and me.  That's us in the front, baby faces and all.  On the other side of the table are Patrick and Sharon Smith, of Perth, Australia.

This photo commemorates the last time I saw them in person.  But three years later, they figured into one of the most profound God-moments of my life.

The geographical place for this God-moment was Papua New Guinea.  The emotional place was major clinical depression, with a side of extreme anxiety and a sprinkle of psychosis every now and again.

Even though I was really in a bad place emotionally, I was getting a lot of good support from friends and I was having this strange experience of feeling horribly depressed but knowing that God was with me anyway.

My friend Pam said, "Honey, that's not weird.  Read the Psalms."  And my friend Karen shared with me that scripture about the Holy Spirit praying for us with groanings too deep for words.

So one morning I was sitting with another friend and I said, "Even though this is really bad, I feel like God is giving me gifts right now that I don't even know to ask for."

And when I said those words--"God is giving me gifts right now"--the phone rang.  A fellow missionary I knew in passing said, "Hey, there's a guy coming to your door in a minute.  He's wearing a blue shirt.  He's got something  for you."

OK.  Weird.

A few minutes later, this guy in the blue shirt knocked on the door and handed me a plastic grocery sack.

Inside, there were three small gifts, wrapped in orange paper with purple ribbon.  (It was perfume and chocolate.  Just in case you ever wonder what God would send you in a care package.)

So I said to this guy, "Who are you?  And why are you giving me this stuff?  Are you sure it's for me?"

Turns out, he was the youth pastor at Patrick and Sharon Smith's church in Perth, Australia.  He had come to speak at an event for the missionary youth group.  And when the Smiths heard he was coming to PNG, they decided to send some gifts along for us.

Now, since we had left the Smiths at McDonald's in Cairns, Australia, we had been in Tennessee for six months, then on the PNG coast for a year, then in the Solomons for a year, and then in the PNG highlands for about three months.

That's four international moves in three years.  I had trouble keeping track of myself.  How the Smiths had kept track of me, I do not know.

And how these gifts managed to arrive on my doorstep at THE EXACT MOMENT when I was horribly depressed but saying, I have this weird feeling that God was giving me gifts I didn't know to ask for?

Glory.

That's what our pastor said this morning.  That the glory of God is His "manifest presence, undoubtedly known in a particular place."

It's intimidating to think of how we can glorify God.  We are just normal people.  How could we possibly ever make God's present manifest and undoubtedly known in a particular place?

All I know is how other people have done it for me:  with simple acts of love and care.

In orange paper with purple ribbons.

In the long dark nights of my soul, over cups of chai, over lunch, with phone calls and emails, and breakfast at McDonald's.

So, this Holy Week, when I think about how to glorify God, this is what I know to do:  love and care for the people in front of me.

And when God is glorified, I might not even know it.  But that's OK, because I am not the star of this rodeo anyway.

In all our simple, normal, loving lives, Lord, be glorified today.

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The Accidental Volunteer

Monday we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday.  Martin Luther King Day has become a "national day of service," when we're supposed to take advantage of a few free extra hours, and do something to help others. I plan to sleep in and have lunch with my daughter and a couple of friends.  I could call this service to the people I love, but that would be a lie.  It's just what I want to do tomorrow.

But I was wondering if Monday could be a day to at least THINK about service and volunteering?  Maybe look at some options and decide on a few hours or days during the coming year that would work for volunteering?  And then take some steps toward it?  Maybe fill out an application?

The reality is that you often can't volunteer on the spur of the moment.  You usually need to plan ahead.  Apply.  Interview.  Pass a background check.  Get a vaccination, depending.

I know these things because, in my quest for counseling internship hours, I accidentally became a volunteer.  And now it's sort of taken on a life of its own.

I started off at a community center for folks with chronic, severe mental illness.

And then I added on a shift as a volunteer chaplain at our local hospital.

Then I found this super-cool clinic for at-risk children, where they let me do play therapy on the fly in the waiting room.  Friends, you haven't lived until 6 kids are all trying to get into a play kitchen the size of a shoe box, and it's your job to keep them from killing each other.  Therapeutically.

Last summer, a friend of mine got me mixed up in decorating a room for homeless families at a local shelter, combining mad love for HGTV with volunteering.

And then another friend of mine went and had quintuplets this fall.  That's five (count them, 5) babies at once.  So now I put in a few hours each week with the cutie pies.  (Of course there's a blog about the babies.  Click here and see all the cuteness for yourself.)

So here's what I love about volunteering.

I've met the nicest people while volunteering.  

At the clinic for at-risk kids, there's a "foster grandma" who's been working there 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, ever since she retired 4 years ago.  Her kids tell her she should be putting her feet up and resting, and she thinks that's just crazy.  She took a week off before Christmas, and that day a couple of teenage girls came in, saw me, and said, "Where is Miss Hazel?"  (Subtext:  you are chopped liver.)  They told me that Miss Hazel loves them, and would be disappointed to miss them.  I know that's the truth.  And I feel incredibly honored to know Miss Hazel, and others like her, who quietly lay down their lives, day after day, in love.

I've learned a whole lot from the people I'm supposed to be helping.  

As a volunteer chaplain, I've spent a fair amount of time with elderly patients who know that they are dying in the near future.  One gentleman just had that special peace about him, and when I asked him about it, he said, "I have loved my wife and my children.  God loves me.  I've had a great life.  I'm ready to go."  Wow.  The essence of a life well-lived.

Volunteering makes me go home grateful.

When I work with people who are one step away from homelessness, or who are terribly ill, or who face difficult life circumstances, it makes me count my blessings.  It just does.  I have a bad memory.  Out of sight, out of mind, and before you know it, I'm thinking that what I really need to be happy is a new pair of boots.  Volunteering keeps me in touch with reality.  The reality is, my life is full of blessing.  Overflowing.  I need to be grateful, grateful, grateful.

Volunteering makes me want to be generous.

Probably my most difficult moment in volunteering this year came at the clinic for at-risk children.  I was coloring with a little boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, and while we were chatting, he told me that his mom was a new mom.  I knew he meant she was his foster mom.  And then he said, "Yeah, I'm her new boy.  I'm the one with all the bruises."

A few weeks ago, after Sandy Hook, I quoted Mr. Rogers:  "Look for the people who are helping."

We can be those people.

Dr. King said it this way:  "The time is always ripe for doing right."

mlk2

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An Anatomy of Redemption 2

In April 2003, we left Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea for Dallas, Texas.

It was our 5th international move in 3 years.

I was sick with anxiety and depression and grief.  We had four kids going into public school with just two months left in the school year.  We were looking for a house to buy, searching for a church home, and above all trying to reconfigure our marriage into something real and true and good.

I had thought I was done in February.

But I got done-er in April, especially when we encountered our mission's counseling department.

My second child was delivered by a young intern who had just started his OB/GYN clinical rotation.  I was his first delivery.  And here is how we met.

I was just starting into a contraction when the curtain around my bed parted, and this young man introduced himself to me.  As the contraction progressed, he began to ask me questions from a checklist on his clipboard.  I answered as pleasantly as possible.  At the peak of the contraction, he asked, "And what is your blood type?"

Through gritted teeth I shrieked, "I don't knooooooooooooooooow!"

My experience with our mission's counseling department was sadly similar.

The counseling department had a clipboard and a checklist.  And before they were prepared to give me counseling,we had to undergo nine hours of evaluation.  I was assigned a counselor.  Andy was assigned a counselor.  We each had to do our evaluation.

I had never been to counseling.  I thought maybe this was how you did it.  They told me it would be helpful.  So we started.

One of the first questions was, "What was it like for you, growing up as the eldest of seven siblings?"

What?

I'm incredibly depressed, in so much emotional pain I can hardly walk across the room, and you want me to give you a paragraph on my childhood?

I remember indignantly saying to this person,"I don't know!"

It didn't get better.  It didn't get more relevant.

I thought the evaluation was ridiculous, and I didn't want to be evaluated.  I just wanted help.

When I communicated this to administrators and counseling staff, I was told, "This is a helpful process."

I said, "It's not helping me."

But it just didn't matter.  Gathering information was the most important thing.  So that's what they did.

I would come home from evaluation sessions, lay on the bed crying, and say to myself over and over, "God loves me.  God loves me.  God loves me."  That was all I had to hang onto.

I kept saying I didn't like it.

My counselor told me, "You don't understand.  This is part of the discipline process."

I went to my administrator and said, "Hey.  Pretty sure I don't need to be disciplined, since I haven't done anything wrong.  Go ahead and discipline Andy.  But leave me out of it."

He agreed and promised to make it clear to the counseling department that the process was a restorative process, not a disciplinary process.

But by the time the evaluation wrapped up in September, I was done being helped by the helpful process.  Way, way, way done.

I wrote a letter to the organization, saying I would no longer participate in any of their counseling processes.  I think I might have said that now I needed counseling for their counseling.  I know I said I would seek my own therapy outside the organization.

I figured we would be fired.

After a month, we received a short letter apologizing for the difficulty, saying we were allowed to seek counseling wherever we chose, and that they would just appreciate a brief letter from the counselor whenever he or she felt we were recovered.

I've been told they don't do it like this any more, and that's a good thing.

But here is what I do know.  Beyond all shadow of a doubt.

Whatever the intentions of those people at that time, whatever mistakes they made, God meant it for good.  And He has done great things.

I really struggled with whether or not to tell this part of the story, because it's kind of crazy and ugly.  But these things happen.  People do things that hurt us, sometimes accidentally.  Sometimes on purpose.  But no matter what, God redeems.  The more we believe that, the more we can tell the truth and let it set us free.  Even if it's crazy and ugly.

And, the more time goes on, and the more I see what God has done, the more grateful I am for even this part of the experience.   Maybe the mistakes of other people became the flames of the refiner's fire.  If that's true--and I think it is--I can only be grateful.

Here's another thing I know.  I have had to learn a lot about forgiveness.

I had to forgive Andy for what he did.  It helped a lot that he was sorry and worked hard to be trustworthy again.

I had to forgive administrators who made mistakes.  It helped that they were sorry and worked with us in the end.

I have to forgive counselors who made mistakes.  That has been harder, because they kept telling me they were right.

So I forgive.  And God heals.  And when the other person repents, we have the possibility for restoration of the relationship.

Other times, I forgive and God heals and the other person never gets it.  That's hard, but we keep walking and God keeps healing.

Jesus told the parable about the man who owed millions, was forgiven the debt, and then got crazy with the guy who owed him a dollar.

And I just don't want to be that person, worried about every penny stuck to the sidewalk.  I don't need the pennies, and it messes with the manicure.

So for the experience of forgiveness and healing and restoration, I am truly grateful.

And for the things I don't understand and I still think are crazy, I'm grateful that God knows and understands.

I believe He redeems everything.  Even this.

But hear me now.

If I were in that situation today, I'd be out the door in a heartbeat.

Because there are basic legal and ethical rights that the law provides for clients in counseling.  Things like:  I have the right to keep anything private that I want.  I have the right to ask questions.  I have the right to helpful therapy.  And guess who decides whether it's helpful or not?  Me.

I am a counselor now.  And if you come to see me, you'll receive a copy of your client bill of rights.  And I will go over it with you verbally.  And I will tell you that if you meet with me, and then decide to see another therapist, please go with my blessing.  In fact, if you don't like the color of the walls or the office furniture, bon voyage my darling.  (Although if you've tried 10 counselors and none of them were any good, you might start thinking about other common denominators.  I'm just sayin'.)

Can God redeem?  Yes.  Always.

Is it necessary to stay in a harmful situation?  No.  Absolutely not.

When you're in a bad place, what you need is help.  Make sure your therapist is helpful.  To you.

We stayed at the time because our translation project wasn't finished.  We had devoted 10 years to that project and we wanted to finish.  So we felt like we had to retain membership with the organization, no matter what.

Today, I would say:  not so much.  God has other ways.  And those other ways don't have to include me being mistreated.

Which, at the end of the day, was a really important lesson for me.  Really important.  Huge.  My capacity to stand up for myself was practically non-existent.  I might make some noise, but over and over and over I'd go along with things I knew were wrong for me.  I kept hoping that other people would notice and do the right thing for me.  I didn't take responsibility to do the right thing for myself.

In the refiner's fire, I learned to take a stand for myself.  I learned that God does love me, even when He doesn't rescue me right this minute.  I learned to press on through the pain with the hope that God is always at work, always redeeming.  I learned to be grateful even for this.  Truly.

No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening--it is painful!  But afterward there will be a quiet harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.  So take a new grip on your tired hands and stand firm on your shaky legs.  Mark out a straight path for your feet.  Then those who follow you, though they are weak and lame, will not stumble and fall but become strong.  Hebrews 12: 11-13

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the Sunday gathering

This week's food challenge is a little bit about what I won't do:  buy moremoremore groceries this week. But really it's a whole lot about I already have:  way more than enough.

I want this week to be about mindfulness and gratitude, and not about deprivation.

Last night we went out for a cook-out with friends from church.  As we drove away, my 21 year old son called and said he wanted to make dinner for friends at the house.  He was a little worried about using my ingredients up.  What about the mushrooms.  Did I have plans for the bell peppers.  We dithered a bit and then I said, "You know, use whatever you want.  It's fine.  That's what this week is about, anyway.  Just go for it."

Six kids ate dinner at my house while I was gone.  They made sweet tea.  (You know I had a little sugar crisis the first day out on this challenge.)

But it was all good.  Way more than good.   Some of the kids were still here when we got home and I love those guys way too much.  They are welcome to every crumb in my house.

And my friend brought me a present when she came to dinner:  the half bag of sugar from her pantry.  And a can of pineapple that her husband thought we would enjoy.

I think I might make a fruit salad later, since that makes three fruits in the fridge now.

So this morning I went out into my back yard and brought in some of what is already here:  the beauty and abundance and joy.  The love and gifts and moremoremore, far beyond what I need.  If I will just open my eyes and see.

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these little wonders

So I was thinking about manna this week.  How it appeared to feed those who needed it, in the right place, at the right time, just the right amount.  How it couldn't be kept or hoarded.  How you had to gather what you needed right then and there, and go to bed and wait til tomorrow. I was thinking about manna because life lately has been just what I need.  Right place, right time, right amount.

Spring.  Flowers.  Butterflies.  Baby birds.  Friday night fireworks after the Rangers game.  Birthday parties and wedding showers and cookouts and laughter.

These small hours.  These little wonders.

And how I would love to hoard them all.  To trap them, keep them, lock them up.

But I know what I really need to do.  Love these moments, savor them, receive them with gratitude, gather them up for today.  Then lie down and sleep, and wait til tomorrow becomes today, and the manna comes again.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsT2URr1Igc]

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easter lilies

I’m walking through the garden when tears spring into my eyes.  I don’t know why, until I realize that I smell Easter lilies.  Resurrection after death.  Redemption after pain. I am missing home this Easter season, thinking about how much I love the Good Friday service with the lights going out and things getting quieter and quieter, until finally “It is finished” and everyone files out, in silence, to go home and wait for Easter.

But my favorite part is later, the part the congregation doesn't see, when the choir members unwrap the Easter lilies and put the butterflies on the nails in the Cross.

This work that choir does in the dark and quiet has come to symbolize to me the work that God does in the dark and quiet of our lives when we are living through our own Good Fridays.

When all the lights have gone out, everything is quiet, and it seems that the story has ended so badly--I have this picture now of God in a royal blue choir robe, tiptoeing through my life, setting out Easter lilies and leaving them to unfurl during the silent Saturdays.

And when they are open for Sunday morning, with their fragrance spilling through the sanctuary, the soundtrack will always be the Widor Toccata.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtj300j129k]

(Written at Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea, 2006)

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