Advent

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Advent is a time of expectation and hope, but the beauty of this season gets overshadowed by busyness, rush, and consumerism. Art has a way of quieting the noise and helping us be attentive to the profound things of life.

May this piece of poetry open for you a small space when the noise of your life gets a little softer and the whisper of God gets a little louder.

 

Listen

 

I groan

—a prayer too deep for words—

as I fight to hope and believe

I will hear Your voice again.

 

The Lord hears

—the Word becomes flesh—

four hundred years of silence

broken by a Baby’s first cry.

 

What the World Sees

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Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

I think too often, we miss it. We miss what it means to be a Christian in a world desperate for light and hope. We miss opportunities to live out Jesus’ words. We miss chances to speak life.

A friend of mine said, “Remember that the world will know we are Christians by our love. Currently, it seems that the world knows us more and more by our dogmatic stances on social issues.” How tragic these words are. I wish I could say they’re a lie, but it only takes a few minutes on social media to see they’re true. I’m not saying we shouldn’t stand for truth, but when the Church is known as a place where people will be met with judgement and condemnation, and when people feel that love can only be found outside of the Church, then something has gone horribly wrong.

What if we cared about people more than issues? What if we loved people with the audacious love Jesus showed in the Gospels? What if when the world saw us, they saw something remarkable, something beautiful, something they want to have and be a part of?

The world needs to see something different in us:

  • Less fear; more hope rooted in trust in a sovereign and good God.
  • Less anger; more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
  • Less self-righteousness; more humility.
  • Less of us using the Bible primarily as a tool for making a point or developing an argument; more of us being grounded in truth, reading the whole of scripture with the intention of getting to know our Savior and share His love.
  • More of us believing God is who He says He is and can do what He says He can do.
  • Less of us focusing on the circumstances we can see right now; more of us fixing our eyes on the eternal Kingdom of God.
  • More of us seeing people the way God sees them, each person made in the image of God and a life for whom Jesus died and resurrected.
  • More of us living in the recognition of the extravagant grace that is daily given to us and, in turn, extending extravagant grace to others.
  • More of us seeking first the Kingdom of God and being motivated by the desire to please Him in all we do.
  • More of us making our voices heard in Heaven before making our voices heard on social media or in conversation with others.
  • More of us making room for the Holy Spirit to move in and through us and to interrupt our day with beautiful and wonderfully messy opportunities.

This is the kind of Church that will change the world, the kind of Kingdom God is wanting us to be a part of, the kind of culture He wants us to start living in the here and now. We can do this! Who’s on board?

In-Between Spaces

In March of this year, I went on a monastery retreat. I’m the kind of person who’s good at getting stuff done, but I struggle to be still. And there’s something about getting away from the daily grind, noise, and cellphone reception that revives my soul. I never leave the monastery the same as I arrive. And when I’m in the solitude and silence, I can hear God’s voice better.

The last time I had been to the monastery was October 2017. I left with a resolution to obey something God had been speaking to me for a while: write a book. I left excited, scared, and armed with a list of next steps that included finding a coach.

I didn’t know what I was doing. How do I write a book? How do I go about getting a book published? Who do I know who might possibly know someone who can kind of answer one of my gazillion questions? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

But I took a step of faith: I bought a notebook and started writing. Then I took another step of faith: I told a few friends and asked them to pray for me. And then when I felt like backing out, I took another step of faith: I bought a Giving Key personalized with the word, “Write,” so I could have a constant reminder of this thing I felt God calling me to do.

I took step after step after step.

And in the midst of all of these steps, there was a LOT of writer’s block and discouragement. I could write details about my book’s target audience, posts for my blog and social media that had nothing to do with my book, and other random stuff…but every time I sat down to work on my book proposal, nothing. It’s like the faucet of book proposal words had been shut off and the handles for me to turn it back on had disappeared.

Going into 2019, I took yet another step of faith: I joined a Go Team, an intensive coaching experience with Go + Tell Gals. I was hesitant to do it because I was nervous about the money and time it would require, but something inside me told me I needed to do it. I prayed and prayed, but the nagging feeling wouldn’t go away. But what if I spend all this money and time and it ends up being a waste? That’s the thing about taking steps of faith: you have to take the step before you can see what’s on the other side of it.

Each Go Team session felt like a transformative experience—scrubbing my soul, clarifying my vision, awakening inspiration. A few months into it, after an intense day of back-to-back coaching sessions, I felt something I hadn’t felt in almost a year: words bubbling up inside of me. I opened up Google Docs and my book proposal began to have less blank space and more substance. A couple days later, I went on my monastery retreat. And while I was there, I mapped out my chapter-by-chapter synopsis and wrote two whole chapters. Of course, everything I wrote was rough and in need of a lot of work, but it was huge breakthrough. And sometimes, that’s all we need. Not perfection, just breakthrough.

When we think of breakthrough, we tend to think of the flashy moments with all the big feelings. But breakthrough is made up of all the stuff that happens in the in-between spaces, the spaces where it seems like nothing is happening.

Praying even when God seems silent.

Daily choosing to obey God in the way He’s ordered for that day.

Consistently taking the next step even when it seems inconsequentially small or unfeasibly large.

Constantly surrendering our egos and desire for control and trusting the capacity of God.

Regularly doing the disciplines of writing and research (or whatever it is this calling requires) even when they bring out our insecurities and we feel like what we’re doing is trash.

This is the stuff, right here. The stuff people don’t see. The stuff that’s hard. You may not be able to see it now, but this in-between space, yeah, this is where the great stuff is being forged.

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October 2017 – when I decided to obey God’s call to write a book
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March 2019 – in the middle of obeying the call to write a book

More to See

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“I know how to tell the difference between a slur and a tie!” my young piano student declared, moments after learning what ties are for the first time.

Skeptically, I asked, “You do? How?”

“A slur is always higher than a tie,” pointing to his music. (For those who care, his piece had slurs in the treble clef and ties in the bass clef.)

“Well, it’s like that here,”—I tried to be gentle—”but sometimes a tie is higher.”

“Ok! Well,” he continued confidently, “a slur is always longer than a tie.”

I pulled out a music book sitting beside me, again showing him he had more to learn about slurs and ties.

He wanted so much to keep trying to prove he knew what he didn’t actually know. But if I had let him keep going, the time would’ve run out on his 30-minute lesson before he could learn the difference between a slur and a tie.

“I’ve seen a lot more slurs than you,” I said, “and I’ve seen a lot more ties than you. So let me show you how you can tell the difference between the two.”

How often do we think we’ve figured out faith and God after we’ve learned or experienced some things? Our minds naturally try to sort new information into categories and patterns, but when we reduce things to patterns or formulas, we miss out on the infinite more. We stop seeking, studying, experiencing, pushing forward, digging deeper. We get satisfied—proud even—with our small picture of God. We think we’re wise and mature when really we’re just stuck in an existence void of awe and wonder.

We often live out our faith on auto-pilot and neglect to leave space for the years to pour into us more learning and experience, for the wisdom of others to refine us, and for God Himself to reveal to us a bigger picture of who He is and what He can do.

Sometimes the way God works is like simple arithmetic. Sometimes the way He works is like the Fibonacci sequence, opening us up to a world of wonder. And sometimes His ways are too abstract or messy or wild for us to reduce to a formula any human can fully comprehend or imagine.

All the while, God is daily beckoning us to sit with Him and humbly listen. “I’ve seen more than you, and there’s still more for you to see. Let me show you.”

When the Dream Dies

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Me, circa 2005

To my bright-eyed, 21 year-old self:

People tell you that you’re talented and anointed. “You’re gonna change the world,” they say. (You’re never going to stop believing that!) Your life is overflowing with possibility.

But before your 25th birthday, you’ll pour your heart and energy into a beautiful, God-sized dream and that dream will fail.

And it will feel like death.

When the dream dies, you’ll question if you really did hear the voice of God calling you to this dream or if you just imagined it. You’ll wonder about the myriad of things you could have done differently. You’ll worry your life is over. You’ll fear you’re too broken to try anything worthwhile again.

But as your mind spins with a myriad of questions and emotions, please let yourself mourn. Grieve this death. Feel the pain—God can’t comfort the hurts you refuse to feel. Allow yourself to feel this, even if that means you find yourself kneeling on your cold, bathroom floor crying in agony. Your agony is not too big for God. It is safe in His presence. You are safe in His presence.

When the dream dies, you will learn that your tears don’t make you weak. You’ll learn that you are strong and God is stronger.

One dead dream does not mean the death of all dreams. There will be beautiful things waiting for you on the other side of this.

When the dream dies, your life won’t be ending. It will be a new beginning.

Over time, He will resurrect you from the ashes. You will hope again. You will be courageous again. And you will dream again.

 

Not Called to Be the Best

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Warning: If learning about someone’s insecurities makes them less credible to you, then stop reading and feel free to unfollow me. But if you’re all too familiar with struggling to figure out how you can honor God when you’re not the best, not good enough, and your mind is drowning in insecurity…this is for you.

Following the whisper of God isn’t easy.

“Write,” He said to me.

There are days when I feel inspired to write and words come gushing out as my fingers race to catch them before they disappear. But more often than not, writing feels like squeezing droplets of stuff that’s barely intelligible from my brain.

I’m not the best writer. Most days, I don’t even believe I’m a good writer. And my goodness, are there any other writers out there who write as slow and inefficiently as me?!? (I mean, I know there are, but when I’m alone with my computer, it feels like I’m the only one.)

And this is where following God’s whisper gets tough.

I want to give God my best, but when my best doesn’t feel good enough, I exclaim, “God, why did You choose me for this? I can’t do this!”

And what I really mean is

I’m not the best at this.

This is too hard for me.

You picked the wrong person.

I tried. Can I quit now?

And God whispers to my frustrated soul,

“Walk in obedience.

Abide in My presence.

Rest in My capacity.

This is going to be beautiful.”

God hasn’t called me to be the best or to a life of endless productivity and efficiency. He has called me to obedience, abiding, and rest.

And I must daily die to

my perfectionism and competitiveness,

my obsession with productivity and efficiency,

and my ego and insecurities,

so I can follow Jesus

into a life of wild abundance,

wonder and beauty,

and the pursuit of God-sized, Kingdom dreams.

 


 

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'” (Matthew 16:24, ESV)

What is God whispering to you in this season of your life?

What do you need to die to today so you can follow God’s whisper?

 

Words We Sing on Monday

Update (December 17, 2019): It has been one year since I wrote this blog post. It has also been one year since my last cortisone injections! Hallelujah! (Insert shouting and happy dancing here.) As I look back and read the words I typed a year ago, a different set of challenges weighs on my heart. But these words are still true: “God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Yesterday in church, I found myself swept away by a song that spoke of the God’s goodness and repeatedly declared,

“You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.”

I wasn’t just singing words. I was remembering times when I desperately cried out to God in my pain and He flooded me with His comfort. I was worshipping the God I know, the God I’ve experienced.

I didn’t know that I was preaching truths into my soul I would need to hold onto the next day.

People ask me, “How are your hands?” more often than, “How are you?” Lupus has been unkind to my joints, adding difficulty to my life as a pianist. Every few months, I get multiple cortisone injections in order to continue to use my hands and play the piano. For those of you who are wondering, yes, the injections hurt. But the relief they bring and the music they allow me to produce are enough to keep me coming back for more.

Today, I visited the hand surgeon for my routine injections—one in each thumb and index finger. Four in total. “Do you think they’re working?” he asked. Then he answered his own question: “Well, of course they’re working. You wouldn’t be back here to subject yourself to this if they weren’t working.”

And then he spoke of the best way to proceed, expressing concern about the danger of repeated injections for so long. I told him, “The rheumatologist doubled my dosage of Plaquenil last Friday, and hopefully that’ll help me to not need shots as frequently.”

“Then, let’s see,” he replied. “Let’s see how things go with the new dose of Plaquenil, and then when”—not if—“you come back, let’s do an MRI and consider surgery.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed surgery. In past visits I’ve barraged the poor doctor with a multitude of questions:

  • Will surgery affect my piano playing? (Possibly.)
  • If I get surgery, is it possible I will need surgery again? (Yes.)
  • What is the likelihood that surgery will be effective in my case? (It’s hard to say.)

The prospect of surgery has never sounded attractive to me. But as the doctor spoke today, the prospect of continuing as I have been looked equally unattractive. No option comes with a guarantee; and no option is without dangerous risks.

This is where I’m at. A place where I have no idea what the best way to move forward is. A place of unknown. A place where the mind easily imagines worst case scenarios.

So today I’m facing my worry with quiet trust. I’ve prayed short prayers—anything longer than a few words will bring me to tears. It’s not that I’m afraid of tears and emotion. I’m sure I’ll be ready to cry ugly tears tomorrow. But today, I want to process. To let the words of the doctor sink in. More importantly, to let the words I sang yesterday sink in.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down…

After all, what’s the point of singing words like this on Sunday if I can’t continue to sing them as I face the darkness on Monday?

I’m not praising God out of naiveté. I can sing to God, “You’re never gonna let me down,” because I’ve been through the unknown and darkness so many times already and He’s never stopped being good or left me to fend for myself. He’s always been with me. He’s always brought me through.

God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.

“‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel’
(which means, God with us).”
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Prayers We Stopped Praying

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In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”

Luke 1:5-7, ESV

“Why is this happening? How have I sinned? What’s wrong with me?” Years of living for God and doing everything right, and still she was barren.

“Lord, please give me a child.”

How many times did this prayer escape her quivering lips? How many times did she allow her heart to hope, only to be disappointed? And with each passing year, her window of possibility got smaller and her wounds grew deeper.

She was barren, marked with shame. And her years of hoping were over.

She knew the story, the one that happened millennia ago. Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people, was 90 years old when she conceived. “But God has been silent for centuries. Could God still do things like that today? And if He could, would He?”

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.'”

Luke 1:8-17, ESV

He was chosen by lot. What appeared to be the luck of the draw, something completely random, was divine. God was in the randomness. And as he performed his duties, something miraculous happened. Prayers he had stopped praying years ago were extravagantly answered. He was finally going to be a father.

How do I know Zechariah had stopped praying for a child? Because what he said in response were not the words of a man who still prayed to have a child, but the words of a man who had given up:

And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.'”

Luke 1:18, ESV

He had just heard the most wonderful news of his life, but He couldn’t praise or give thanks. How many times had he prayed for a child? How many times had he consoled his crying wife? How many times did he mask his shame as other men in the community beamed with pride because of their growing families? How many years had God disappointed him before he stopped praying that one, painful prayer?

And after all those years, when his peers were enjoying the births of their grandchildren, was God really going to finally give him a son? Maybe he was numb. Maybe he still felt the sting of old wounds. Either way, the idea that God would bless him now in this way was preposterous.

But this man who had dedicated his life to God’s service had more to learn about God and His ways. Zechariah’s age, circumstances, and limitations were no match for what God could do. God could do anything. But after everything Zechariah had been through, could he believe this—really believe in a personal, non-theoretical, hope-risking kind of way?

And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.

Luke 1:19-22, ESV

I used to think that Zechariah was being punished for his unbelief, but now I’m not so sure. Because he was suddenly unable to speak:

  • he could no longer speak words of doubt
  • other people were able to see he had a divine encounter, so they became part of the story and Zechariah wouldn’t/couldn’t walk this journey alone
  • he was constantly reminded of what God had done
  • he could spend more time listening, remembering, and reflecting on what God had done.

(How often do I think God is punishing me when really He’s blessing me and preparing me for something beautiful?)

Sometimes when God answers prayers we’ve abandoned or forgotten, He needs to break through the walls we’ve raised to protect our hearts and get our attention so we don’t miss what He’s doing. For Zechariah, he was speechless. Not in a metaphorical way, but in a literal, inconvenient, and disruptive kind of way. For nine months.

Nine months to let this glorious miracle sink in. These nine months would transform Zechariah to his core and make him the kind of father that his son would need him to be: a father who wholeheartedly believed in the God who can do anything, who hears our prayers, and who keeps His word.

When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. How kind the Lord is!’ she exclaimed. ‘He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.’”

Luke 1:23-25, NLT

No one could look down on Elizabeth any longer. Not only did God make Zechariah and Elizabeth a father and mother; He made them a father and mother like Abraham and Sarah. How kind the Lord is!

And this child would have a special place in history. He would be the one who would prepare the way for the Lord, the one who would baptize the long-awaited Messiah, the one of whom Jesus would one day say, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

God knew what Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story would be all along, writing their story so much more beautifully than they possibly could. However, I’m sure it didn’t feel beautiful to Zechariah and Elizabeth as they navigated the many chapters of barrenness and abandoned prayers. But God didn’t stop writing their story when others declared it to be written. When the plot seemed to be at a standstill, everything changed. Their future would not be the quiet they anticipated and their past now had purpose they had never been able to see before. For them, it was as though God rewrote the story they thought they knew.

And for us…

God remembers the prayers we prayed long ago, the ones we gave up on and stopped praying, the ones that became too difficult to pray as the years went on and left us wounded. He remembers and does something more wonderful with them than we can imagine. 

God is kind even when prayers go unanswered, even when He delays, and even when His ways make no sense.

And God writes beautiful stories. If you feel like your story isn’t beautiful, just wait; God’s not done writing yet.