Holy Ground

I have surpassed the 50-day mark of social distancing at home. Even though I’ve gone out for neighborhood walks, picking up food and groceries, one doctor’s visit, and a birthday parade for a friend, I have cabin fever. The initial excitement I had at the thought of being hidden away in introvert bliss has dissipated into drudgery.

There are things I’m incredibly grateful for and continue to enjoy: hearing birds sing as they come to our feeder, wearing loungewear every day, cooking between Zoom piano lessons, not having to drive to work or church and, as a result, being able to spend a little more time with God in the morning without feeling hurried.

But this season has been emotionally and mentally grueling. Like many, it has been a struggle to stay informed about what’s happening in the world without feeling anxiety/dread/frustration. I had a couple weeks of worry when I saw lupus patients struggling to get their prescriptions for a certain medication—a medication I take to stay alive—refilled because it was being used to treat Covid-19. I’ve cried with students both from work and church who are grieving losses, worrying about unknowns, and dealing with difficult circumstances because of or in addition to the pandemic. And as I’ve cried with others, I’ve had my own set of things to cry about. High on that list was not being able to hug my seniors one last time. And then you throw in Zoom fatigue on top of all of that. (Imagine teaching piano lessons on Zoom! Oof!)

At first, I was overwhelmed as I felt all the feels. But a few days ago, I found that my mind and heart were numb. It wasn’t just a feeling of being stuck in a routine. It was a heavy numbness. Like something inside of me was dead. No joy. No fire. No intention. Just going through the motions like a machine.

I read my Bible. Nothing. I prayed, God, I can’t do this. I sat there. Awkward silence.

The night before, as I was teaching our college small group, I talked about getting comfortable in the awkward silence with God. “The awkward silence, that’s when you know things are about to get good!”

Come on, Esther! I just talked about this last night. I told the college students about being comfortable in the awkward silence. So here I go. I’ll just sit here…

And that’s when it happened. That’s when God whispered, “This is holy ground.”

What if I chose to live as though this place where my feet are is holy ground? Because it is. This place where my feet are, this is holy ground.

Because this is the place where God beckons me to sit with Him, where I get to commune with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

This is the place where He says to me, “Peace, be still,” and my body and soul find rest.

This is the place where God is doing something and He invites me to be a part of it.

This is the place where He gives me clarity and vision for Kingdom dreams.

This is the place where I get to prophesy over and speak life to my husband and the people I meet with on Zoom.

This is the place where He gives me words to write for people who need comfort and hope.

This is the place where He takes my hands and miraculously lets them move at the impulse of His love to make music when words aren’t enough.

This is the place where He teaches me to play and laugh and delight like the sunshine and birds I see through my windows.

This is where my feet are. And this is holy ground.

My Goals (and Un-Goals) for 2020

The approaching of a new year means new beginnings and new goals. I have the amazing ability of getting stuck in a rut and judging myself harshly for it, so January 1 is like my grace and hope filled reset button.

I didn’t complete every single goal I set out to accomplish in 2019. But I did complete a good number of them. And for the ones I didn’t complete, I’m definitely much farther along from a year ago. I’d rather set a goal and have progress than not set a goal and not move forward! To help me make progress this past year, I tried out Powersheets from Cultivate What Matters. It’s a tool that helps you articulate and track your goals. I loved it so much I’m using them again this year.

My Goals for 2020

1. Cultivate a prophetic ear + a rule of life.

This is what everything else in my life will flow from.

(If you’re wondering what a rule of life is, it’s simply a plan for spiritual disciplines within daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms. If you want to know more about a rule of life, you can learn more about it in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero and Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton.)

2. Love my people and the people in my circle of influence well.

This means meals, coffee dates, hospitality, and life in the mundane.

3. Save, spend, and give money meaningfully.

Track my spending and create a budget!

Buy no more than 10 clothing/shoe/jewelry items…the whole year.

4. Send my book proposal to a literary agent (or 20).

This means I have to finish writing my book proposal!

5. One fun thing every month.

What is fun? Nothing that involves striving or productivity, and not something I do every/most weeks.

This is a goal I’m bringing back from last year because it was so life giving and I want to keep growing in this area. (And the fact that I have to make fun a goal in order to do it lets me know I still have a lot of growing to do!)

7. Project Dream Room: make our home library beautiful.

This is another goal I’m bringing back from last year. I made some baby steps, but our home library still looks like a disaster.

8. Love my body.

Take care of it. Nourish it. Make it strong. Be grateful for it.

*****

Un-Goals

It’s a great practice to have positive goals where we want to accomplish things or make changes in our lives, but we can’t do that if we’re just adding more and more things to our to-do lists. There comes a point where we can’t add anymore. We have to say “no” to things so we can say “yes” to the things that matter most.

So here are a couple of my Un-Goals for 2020:

1. Read less books and read slower. (My Goodreads goal: 5 books) Don’t read out of obligation or self-imposed pressure. Don’t let books clutter my mind.

2. No buying any bags or pouches. I’m obsessed with bags and bags I can put in bags! I have enough. So unless someone breaks in our house and steals every bag and pouch I own, I’m not buying another one for at least a year.

*****

When I get to the end of 2020, I don’t want to be full of guilt and regret. I want to know I lived the abundant life God ordered for me.

So let’s do this! Let’s enter this new year (and decade!) with expectation, intention, and a whole lot of grace!

Why I Threw Out My Five-Year Plan

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“Do you have a five-year plan?” she asked. I had heard this question many times before, but something in her tone and furrowed brow made me feel small in this moment.

“I used to have a five-year plan,” I replied, “but when I was diagnosed with lupus, everything slowed down. That’s okay, though, because things are still moving and there’s so much God has done that wouldn’t have been possible if I had tried to stick to the five-year plan. He’s done more in the seemingly slow than I could’ve imagined!”

This was not the answer she was looking for.

Even though we had just met, she had a lot of opinions about how I needed to conduct my life to get “back on track” with my five-year plan. And as I quietly listened to her well-intentioned words, I found myself feeling sad for her. I had told her of the beautiful miracles God had done in the past six years since my diagnosis and the things He is doing in the here and now, but she couldn’t see any of that. All she saw was someone who couldn’t stick to her five-year plan and was a failure because of it.

When did we decide that success is measured by five-year plans?

And where in the Bible does it say that we must have a-five year plan in order to adequately follow Jesus and obey the Great Commission?

When my husband and I were fresh out of Bible college, we moved to DC to be part of a church plant. It did not go well. Mark Batterson—before he was a bestselling author, but after National Community Church started to get a lot of attention—told his administrative assistant, “If anybody from that church planting team want to meet with me, put them on my schedule.”

We took his offer, and he spoke life into our wounded souls. He showed us the ten-year plan—or was it twenty?—for the first church he planted, a church that never got off the ground. And he told us the lessons he learned from that failure and how they impacted the life of the thriving church he now pastors.

About a decade ago, my husband and I were on staff at a church in the Philippines when we both (separately) felt God calling us to move back to Springfield, MO for the purpose of preparing to one day move to Japan. When we came back to the States, we had a five-year plan. It included both me and my husband getting master’s degrees, Japanese language study, and a slew of other things to accomplish before moving overseas again. When we reached the halfway point of our five-year plan, we were right on schedule and feeling quite accomplished. I had earned my master’s and it was my husband’s turn to start grad school. At the halfway point, we were literally halfway done with our ambitious to-do list.

And then a diagnosis changed everything. Our progress slowed down and our timeline went out the window. And eventually, I decided to give up on my five-year plans.

Please don’t misunderstand: I have given up on five-year plans. I have NOT, however, given up on God’s call on my life.

I daily strive to walk in obedience to what God has called me to do in the now and the ways He wants me to prepare for the not yet. I don’t need a five-year plan to do that. In fact, I’ve grown more and accomplished more without a five-year plan and with a chronic illness than I did when I had a five-year plan and healthy body. After all, God’s call on my life isn’t about a certain country, dream, or timeline; it’s about so much more. It’s about a Kingdom.

Our five years have now become ten. There are things that God has done in and through us that we would have missed if we would have tried to force a five-year plan. God has been in the waiting living. He’s not waiting to do “the good stuff” when I get to a certain destination. He’s doing the good stuff now, and I don’t want to miss it because I was too busy obsessing over a timetable.

Five—or ten or twenty—year plans are helpful tools to get us moving in the right direction, but sometimes the right direction means coming to a point where God asks us to lay down our five-year plan and simply obey His voice. Sometimes, that was all the five year plan was meant for—for getting us where God wants us to be.

I still make plans and goals, but I (try to) hold them loosely because I know that God can interrupt my plans with beautiful opportunities, and I don’t want to miss it.

I don’t want to miss Him.

Overture for the Year

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It took me a long time to decide my goals for this year. For me, year goals are important. I’m the type of person who’s constantly working on improving myself—I’m a 1 on the Enneagram—but having times of reset helps me evaluate my progress and recalibrate. So months before this new year, I spent a lot of time dreaming and asking God for direction.

In an episode of The Office, the Dunder Mifflin employees were watching Andy perform in a musical. As Michael Scott was muttering something at the start of the performance, Darryl said, “Shh. If we don’t listen to the overture, we won’t recognize the musical themes when they come back later.” That’s what this post is: an overture for this year. You’ll see these themes in my writing. And hopefully, as this year progresses, those who do life with me will see these themes become more and more woven into the fabric of my life.

My Goals for 2019

1. Love well. 

I want my life to be marked by love.

I want to love God well. I want to love my husband well. I want to push myself beyond my introvert tendencies and love my friends well over cups of coffee. I want to love my students and the people I minister to well, going beyond requirements and pouring my heart into their lives.

2. Cultivate a prophetic ear.

I want to cultivate a prophetic ear so I can have a prophetic voice. I don’t mean I want to stand on a street corner with a sign warning of the end of the world. I want to be a voice that speaks life and hope and change into my culture and generation. And this starts with something simple: less noise and more prayer.

3. Spend money meaningfully.

I’ve got three subgoals for this one:

  • Live on a budget.
  • Be generous.
  • Slow/ethical fashion. (I know that’s not a complete sentence, but I’m still trying to figure this one out and this is going to be a year of learning.)

4. Write a book proposal.

This one scares me because I had this goal last year and didn’t come close to achieving it. And when I realized it wasn’t going to happen, I was filled with guilt. But the end of this year, my book proposal doesn’t have to be completely finished, but I want to make significant progress towards being done.

5. Grow into the performer I want to be.

I want to keep refining my craft, to be a more secure performer, to have a stronger vision for what I want each piece to be, and to push my artistry and ask more of the music.

6. Love what I see in the mirror.

My perfectionism makes it tough to look at myself in the mirror. This year, I want to cultivate healthy rhythms of exercise and rest. But more than that, I want to look in the mirror and see beauty regardless of my weight, hair, or makeup.

Also, I want to dress like an adult…because I’m 37 years old and don’t need to wear Hello Kitty and three separate patterns. It’s time to limit my outfits to one cutesy thing at a time. Again, progress.

7. Donate healthy hair.

When I was diagnosed with lupus, I lost about half my hair. Because of scarring on my scalp, the doctors weren’t sure how much of it would grow back. The long, healthy hair that falls on my back is part of my testimony. It is an Ebenezer reminding me that God has brought me this far. But a few months ago, I realized that I can’t just let my hair grow out forever. So this year, I’m paying it forward.

8. Make the library in our house a place where I want to be.

This is my decluttering goal.

9. Read/listen to 100 books.

How will I do this? I’m an avid reader, but my husband introduced me to a game changer: Hoopla. An app where I can borrow audiobooks for free? Yes, please!

10. Do at least one fun thing every month.

The fact that I made this a goal this year is already a sign of growth. This goal may sound frivolous, but my struggle to intentionally take time to have fun has worn on my mind, emotions, and even my body. And to be perfectly honest, this is the goal I’m scared of the most.

A quick note about goals: As this year began, I didn’t expect sudden change. If I would’ve done that, I would have already felt like a failure and given up. I’m approaching this year looking for progress, not perfection. So if you’ve started this new year feeling like you’ve already messed up your New Year’s resolutions and goals, that’s okay! The year’s not over!

 

Redeeming Our Full Schedules with Sabbath

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I wear a lot of hats. Not literal hats; metaphorical hats. I’m a wife, friend, professor, pianist, mentor, writer, volunteer at my church, and occasional speaker. And then there are my hobby hats: reader, hand letterer, Target deal finder…I think you get the idea. I love to do things, and when I’m not doing things, I’m doing other things.

How do I get it all done? My favorite two words are “productivity” and “efficiency.” I don’t procrastinate or dawdle. I manage my time and focus. I carry around books and things to work on in my purse. I stay busy.

Busyness is like a security blanket for me.

But a life of busyness isn’t sustainable. Without rest, busyness ceases to be productive. The quality of our work diminishes, our efficiency wanes, our relationships suffer, and our souls begin to feel empty. I don’t want busyness; I want abundant life.

We are to be productive with our lives, but we aren’t made for constant work and no rest.

“We can squander today by feeding two different sins: laziness or busyness. Both the lazy person and the compulsively busy person subtly reject the God-ordained boundary of time…Busyness believes that the time God has given is not adequate. We must redeem the present by leaving time to observe the practice of stillness and precept of Sabbath, taking on the trusting posture of one who sits at the feet of her Lord.”

(Jen Wilkin, None Like Him)

Keeping the Sabbath is number four in the Ten Commandments.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

(Exodus 20:8-11)

But even before the Law, Sabbath was built into creation.

And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”

(Genesis 2:2-3)

Jesus modeled rest—He even slept on a boat in the middle of a storm!—and taught His disciples the importance of rest.

“The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. Then Jesus said, ‘Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.’ He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. So they left by boat for a quiet place, where they could be alone.”

We need Sabbath to be a regular part of the rhythm of our lives just as music needs rests in order to have breath and movement.

When we don’t observe Sabbath rest,

  • we decrease our productivity and efficiency by wearing down our bodies and minds,
  • we neglect our emotional health,
  • we cease to produce good fruit,
  • and we miss opportunities to experience the presence of a God who loves to show off, to hear His voice, and to enjoy His creation and beauty.

Now, there’s something a bit sticky I want to address:

Jesus got into trouble with the religious leaders of His day for healing people on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14, John 5). Most of the times when I’ve heard these passages preached, the message is that we shouldn’t use the Law as an excuse to not help people. I totally agree with this. At the same time, if the speaker isn’t careful, they can give the impression that the principle of Sabbath rest is outdated and unimportant. No wonder so many pastors and church volunteers easily get burned out!

So let me talk directly about Jesus healing on that Sabbath. I believe one reason Jesus healed on the Sabbath is simply because that’s what God does: God heals on the Sabbath. He heals our weary bodies, stills our unsettled minds, and soothes our raw emotions.

In another passage where Jesus came into conflict with the religious leaders because of the Sabbath, he said, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NLT)

The heart of the Sabbath is not a law to bind us. The Sabbath is a precious gift from the God who loves us and cares about the big and small details of our lives.

If you’re feeling drained, maybe the solution isn’t to quit. Maybe you need to rest and make Sabbath part of the rhythm of your life.

Redeeming Our Full Schedules

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I recently wrote about needing a nap in the midst of a very busy season, so I wanted to bring balance to the conversation and discuss full schedules.

Being busy isn’t necessarily bad. If we’re pursuing God-sized dreams, we can expect our schedules to be full. The problem comes when we’re so busy it depletes us and flows out of a dependence on ourselves instead of God. He is our true source of energy, ability, and resources.

On the other hand, I’ve seen what happens when people prioritize rest without prioritizing work: things don’t get done, deadlines get missed, those who pick up the slack get stressed, and things that could be excellent don’t reach their potential.

Work and rest are meant to go hand in hand—not one or the other. We can redeem our full schedules by cultivating Christ-centered rhythms and using our time well.

How can we do that?

Let’s start with my favorite word: efficiency. I remember a day when my husband and I were watching The Biggest Loser and there was a challenge where each team had to unload big bags of something-or-other from a truck and carry them to the other side of the field as fast as they could. (As you can see, I remember every detail impeccably.) The team that ended up winning had people in the truck placing the bags on other team members’ backs. The other team threw the bags on the ground to unload the truck, leaving the team members who were going to run across the field to first bend down and hoist the bags onto their backs, using up more energy and tiring themselves out faster. My husband laughed and said, “If you were their team leader, you would have started yelling, ‘What are you doing?! Why are you being so inefficient?!'”

If you can work more efficiently, you can get more done with less energy and in a shorter amount of time, thus giving you margin to rest, thus giving you the energy to continue to work efficiently! If you want to get a lot done in a way that’s sustainable, efficiency is the key. 

So let me give you a glimpse of how I make my work efficient:

I pray over my schedule. Yes, that’s right. Author and pastor, Mark Batterson, often says, “Pray like it depends on God, and work like it depends on us.” So I pray for God to help me to be productive and efficient and for anointing in each task I do.

Create momentum. I love to-do lists, but sometimes my lists can be daunting. When I feel overwhelmed, I start with small tasks to get a feeling of accomplishment and create momentum. No matter how large some of the items on my to-do list are, a shrinking to-do list is always encouraging. Some people prefer to do the opposite: complete the largest task first so the remaining tasks seem less daunting. Either way, start with something and shrink your to-do list.

Arrange the puzzle pieces. I think of each item on my to-do list as a puzzle piece. If I place them wherever willy-nilly, they won’t all fit. Just as we need to budget our finances (allotting set amounts from our paychecks towards groceries, bills, gas etc…), we need to budget our time (allotting time for each item on our to-do list).

  • Before the week begins, I write down what my puzzle pieces are—what I want to accomplish by the end of the week. As I do this, I’m mindful of what’s most important to me. Is this worth my time? Is this keeping me from fulfilling my Kingdom dreams? (And a word of caution: I don’t believe that God is against fun. He wants us to experience enjoyment, laughter, and beauty. These things feed our work, creativity, and even our worship. So if you’re the type that works constantly without regularly experiencing these things, I highly recommend finding ways to add fun to your rhythm.)
  • Next, using my planner/calendar, I decide when the best times to accomplish those tasks are. I use pencil because I may have to rearrange later. It’s typical for me to rearrange as the week progresses because…well…life happens. (No guilt!)
  • When possible, I group puzzle pieces according to categories for efficiency. For example, if I have multiple tasks that require me to drive to a certain part of town, I plan to do them in one day so I’m not making multiple trips. If I have multiple tasks that require the use of my computer, I try to accomplish as many of those tasks as possible in one sitting.
  • I don’t evenly distribute tasks throughout the week. I put a heavier load in the beginning of the week so that I have more room to work with later when unexpected things come up throughout the week.
  • I leave time open later for make up work. It’s important to be realistic and to plan for imperfection. Things happen. Computers crash, traffic backs up, cold and flu season hits, lupus flares…If I set up my schedule so there’s no room for error, I’m setting myself up to fall behind. (The great thing is that if I write in time for margin and it ends up being open, I can rest, get ahead on work for the next week, or do something fun.)
  • I don’t budget minute-by-minute; I budget according to segments of the day. (Examples: morning, afternoon, evening; before classes, after classes, after dinner.) Appointments need specific start and (usually) end times. But when it comes to tasks to be done, minute-by-minute rarely works simply because it isn’t realistic. And when my plan for the day doesn’t work, it has a way of making me feel guilty…and guilt is not very helpful for productivity. In fact, guilt has a way of slowing us down.
  • I budget time for rest. We’re more productive and efficient when we’re well rested. Chronic illness has made rest a non-negotiable for me, but as I look back to my life before lupus, it’s clear I was in desperate need for rest long before I got sick.
  • Procrastination is not an option; rearranging my schedule is. I don’t assume I’ll have time to complete something “later.” Some projects take longer than expected. Emergencies and interruptions happen. If I have time to do it now, I do it now. If, however, I end up not being able to complete a task when I wanted, I don’t get guilty; I get proactive. I simply make the adjustments necessary to get it done.

One last note:

I don’t let other people dictate how I manage my time. At the end of the day, I’m the one who is accountable for how I spend my time and what I accomplish.