Grieving with gratitude at the holidays: a guest post by Brooke Taylor

Photo of Brooke - by Mere KentBrooke Taylor lives in Michigan where she resides with her husband and is enjoying a new season of life as she mothers her now five-month-old daughter. She holds an MA in Educational Ministries from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and serves as an adjunct worship leader and assistant chaplain at a Christian mental health institution. Brooke is also beginning her first year in training as a spiritual director associate. To contact her, send a message through facebook. I sat alone on the couch with a mini-lit Christmas tree bringing some light to my family room, as I ate a microwaved Turkey dinner. This would not be the first time that I would have a quiet night around Christmas. Being single after going through a painful divorce was something I didn’t ever think I could get used to. Add in two feet of slushy snow outside and a cloud-filled day, and I knew that my “seasonal” depression was going to kick in. I had come to dread the holiday season because of the many bad family memories that were associated with it. I really missed someone to share the joys of mistletoe. How was I going to deal with disappointment around the holiday season in the face of all the merry expectations? Now, several years later, I can look back and see the disciplines I’ve developed to keep the season bright.

I meet regularly with a spiritual director. Often I am asked what that means. My director does not tell me what to do—she describes herself as a follower of Christ who gently walks alongside me in my spiritual journey. As I heard it said from a director recently, “I will help you stand there and help you know directions, but I will not give you direction on where to go.” The Holy Spirit’s job is to direct us and the director is there to aid us—to help us hear where God is at work. I shared my frustrations with my director. She listened and reflected back what she was hearing. I was beginning to see that I was not grieving my losses and they were hurting my communication with God.

Although I often talked about how God was at work in my life, I was struggling to spend time alone with God. It was easy to talk to my director, but hard to speak to God. I stubbornly refused to take the first step and share what was truly on my heart with Him. I was burying my pain to “keep face” with God in a way I thought a good Christian would do. I had not addressed some serious setbacks.

My director helped me see through this rough season in my life. She pointed me to King Solomon, one of the wisest men to live, who wrote that there is a season for everything… “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecc 3:4). I learned that God gives us permission to grieve and even grieves over us at times.

But the question is, do I give myself permission to grieve, and how can I do it?

During a silent retreat (which allowed time for speaking with a spiritual director), I found the space I needed to take my disappointments to Christ. I needed to name my pain, move toward burying my past hurts, and then wait for what was next. I believed that Christ would resurrect new dreams for me. As I took each of my worries to Him, we began to communicate better in our relationship. I realized how much he had done for me. I started to grieve with gratitude – acknowledging my pain openly, but also holding onto hope that God was still at work in my life in good ways.

I like to journal. It is one of those amazingly safe places where I can speak my heart and also be faced with reality. After meeting with my director, I began to focus not just on my grief but on the people and things for which I was thankful. I began to see that Christ was at work in my life in many surprising ways and to rejoice in His goodness.

The holidays are becoming easier for me to face as I seek to remember the spiritual discipline of grieving with gratitude. After eight and a half years of being single, I have married again and been blessed with a new baby girl. God has opened my heart to love—and risk—again. Love always comes with risk in relationship. I know that no matter whatever hardship I may face, God will always be there for me. He is someone I can always trust, and he desires that I be real with my pain. I still face occasional blue days, even with these many blessings. I then try to remember with gratitude God’s many good promises. Isaiah 30:18 says, “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; He rises to show you compassion, for the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for Him!” This is a promise that I can be thankful for in any season.

 What emotions threaten to color your holidays this year? What have you discovered about journeying with God through your grief?

On cigarettes and the kingdom of God

cigarettesMy father died of cancer of the lung at the young age of 61, amidst other kinds of cancer. It may have been all that secondhand smoke.  My grandfather died of leukemia, with a strong case of emphysema mixed in; the cigarette smell hung on his clothing. In my mind, I remember him holding one of his nicotine sticks. I also remember the way my mom, Baptist pastor's wife in a church parsonage, put out an ash tray in the living room the day he came to visit. 

I remember the day I smoked a clove cigarette myself. The truth is the aroma was intoxicating; the tar in my mouth, disgusting. It felt like a coating of pure nastiness. Never again, I vowed. Never again. 

It would be quite easy for me to wage a personal vendetta against tobacco in all its forms. After all, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and all that (though we could have a lively debate on what this means!). Even more urgently, Christians have this terrible habit of separating body from soul. Some of us should just go ahead and sign up for the local "Gnostics Anonymous" club, we sometimes have this horrible way of saying the body is evil and the soul is good, a belief that cannot be found in Scripture. The same word of God that states that God's plan to renew the earth and the people in it will come to fruition; that in fact, today, in this moment, we are a part of this advancing kingdom, a reflection of his glory. Our physical bodies will be renewed.

All of this I believe to be the truest truth about me and about those who enter the kingdom of God. God, through Jesus, is making all things new.

Hallelujah and pass the nicotine?

No. I don't want anyone I love (and I should love all of those whom Jesus loves) to destroy their body through a nicotine addiction, to spend their money on something that kills, to abuse themselves when they are God's Beloved. This is my first thought, and it rings true.

However, my second thought is this: Jesus is crazy about people who smoke.  He meets them in their nicotine haze, not in the place we would wish for them to be, cleaned up and set free from every compulsion.

Recently a woman pursuing the claims of Jesus and a life of sobriety shared an idea with me. What if we all put our cigarettes under our bed each night? She meant this in terms of a spiritual practice. You see, by bending down to place the Marlboros under the bed, you find yourself on your knees—a perfect position in which to pray to your heavenly Father. The same happy thing happens in the morning when your eyes open. To get up and get out for a smoke, you must once again bend down on your knees, the perfect position in which to pray.

I paused for a moment and replied, "I think that is a wonderful idea!" Because it is, you see. Because when we kneel and we seek the Almighty, he moves. Sometimes he moves slowly, using adversity and challenge and circumstances to cultivate wholeness and holiness. Sometimes he moves quickly. Always, he moves, when a heart is sincere.

I think it's still fair to say that I hate cigarettes. I simply hate what they do to the people I love. But eclipsing this hatred is love. Love for God's Creation, love for anyone trapped in an addiction of any kind, love for the kingdom of God in all its subversiveness.

You see, this kingdom is like a mustard seed, small in its beginnings, a tiny seed that mysteriously grows to become a healthy tree, a resting place (Matthew 13:31-32).

And the kingdom of God is also like yeast, which in the beginning is just . . . yeast. "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about 60 pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough." (NIV Matt. 13:33)

The kingdom is both here, announced through the person of Jesus, and in the not yet, the glorious day when he will renew all things. And in the meantime, it pops up, small but growing, in unexpected places. Sometimes through prayers offered next to a pack of cigarettes.

And here is what I am beginning to believe, to wrap my hands and my heart around: the Kingdom of God can sprout up anywhere, in the most desolate and small and despairing of circumstances. I want to look for it there, while believing it can break through in even greater measure, taking down walls, providing more healing and shoring up souls. And that is all I have to say on cigarettes and the kingdom of God.

How is the kingdom of God showing up in your world, small but subversive? Do tell.

What You Do Today Matters: a quote from NT Wright

551826_w185What we do in the Lord is 'not in vain,' and that is the mandate we need for every act of justice and mercy, every program of ecology, every effort to reflect God's wise stewardly  image into his creation. In the new creation the ancient human mandate to look after the garden is dramatically reaffirmed, as John hints in his resurrection story, where Mary supposes Jesus is the gardener. The resurrection of Jesus is the reaffirmation of the goodness of creation, and the gift of the Spirit is there to make us the fully human beings we were supposed to be, precisely so that we can fulfill that mandate at last. -NT Wright,  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection and the Mission of the Church

Don't you see? Because of the Resurrection, Eden and the Earth will eventually be gloriously restored (Romans 8:18-21). The stunning truth is that we are participating in that renewal at this very moment as reflections of Christ and his glory: 

  • When we stand up for the mistreated in our workplace.
  • When we do our work with all our might, imaging our creative God.
  • When we plant a tree.
  • When we write a poem, play a song, celebrate life.
  • When we make babies and when we change babies and when we raise babies to the glory of God.
  • When we tell a john to "back off, dude!" defending the honor and dignity of women.
  • When we protect these same women by working to stop the systemic causes of gender violence.
  • When we rise with praise on our lips and kindness in our actions.
  • When our lives shout the good news of the gospel.
  • When we do anything in the name of our risen Lord, who is reconciling all things to himself! (Colossians 1:15-23)

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done—in me and through me today—as it is in heaven. Amen.

Your turn: How does knowing we are participating in building the Kingdom today give you hope?

Friday thoughts on the miracle of the Resurrection

220px-Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700 Jesus was made new that we might be made new, participating in a thousand acts of newness, of new life in Christ: 

In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee:  ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ”  Then they remembered his words. -Luke 24:5-8

From poet John Updike:

Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty, lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle, and crushed by remonstrance.

He is risen, just as he said. Now, GO TELL.

How about you? In what ways is Jesus making you new?

Blessing: a guest post by Jamie Wright

JamieJamie Wright is one of my talented coauthors for the book Reclaiming Eve, due to release in March 2014. She holds a degree in English literature and is pursuing an MA in Counseling. Wife to Ryan and mom to Toby (aka, Super Grover—you should see his cape), Jamie specializes in pursuing spiritual formation and the disciplines amidst the busyness of life and helping others to do the same. Some years ago I had a particularly engaging conversation with a checkout girl at Wal-Mart. She seemed to have such a beautiful spirit, and yet to be so tired, and I was struck deeply by the thought:

This woman is immensely loved by God, He longs to bless her and use her. 

As I watched my regiments of groceries slide across the scanner and into bags, an awkward urgency began to build. I needed to say something. Now. But I was loathe to punch a hole in the flow of pleasantries in order to make an opening: “So… do you go to church anywhere?” 

Instead I took my bags, gave her my most genuine fake grin, and told her to have a great day. Walking away I had an inner arm-wrestling match with the Holy Spirit.

I got about as far as the car.

It is much worse to go back and make up for disobedience after the fact. I packed my groceries in the trunk, and shambled back in, making bargains with myself. Well, if she has a customer, obviously I’m just going back to the car. Of course this was the one time that there were no customers in line anywhere in Wal-Mart.

I gave the sort of apologetic preamble that’s common among believers these days. I know this is going to sound weird, but… And I simply told her I needed to share God’s blessing and love. She seemed surprised but pleased.

Months later I happened to find the same employee again and this time was faithful to mention God before leaving the store. Her response: “Oh yes! I thought I recognized you!” My oddness or God’s blessing had made an indelible impression on her, just as they had made on me.

I find that the topic of blessing is a difficult one to really dig into when steeped in evangelicalism. All too often, a blessing is a sort of spiritual-sounding salutation in an email, or maybe even a way to gloss over a dig or gossip. The appropriate response to a sneeze. We have no real culture of spoken blessing or an understanding of the gravity of these words.

Digging into scripture quickly reveals the importance of blessing in the lives of the people of God. Abram is first called to leave everything he knows in order to be a conduit of blessing:

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  Genesis 12:2-3

Later scriptures present blessing as something that is gravely important, non-transferable, and highly desirable when Jacob steals the blessing of his older brother, Esau:

His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?”

“I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.”

Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”

When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”                                Genesis 27:32-34

What these scriptures and countless others have in common is the source of the blessing. Any good things we have to offer – verbal affirmations, practical help, Godly example – are always to point the way back to our Heavenly Father, the source of every good and perfect gift. (James 1:17)  Isaac may have been surprised that his younger son was blessed first, but God was not.

At the same time, our words and actions are a vitally important part of the equation. Not only does God still desire to make us a conduit of blessing for the world, but the way we bless – or curse – those around us has a huge impact on our own hearts and minds. Psalm 109:17-18 describes a wicked man, an enemy of the psalmist:

He loved to pronounce a curse— may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing— may it be far from him. He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil.

This image of curses sinking into our bones like oil, becoming a fundamental part of who we are, is sobering to me.

At times I wonder how I will teach my son about the gravity of his words. After all, language is powerful. It connects us or alienates us; it defines us and protects us. A word, once released from our lips, cannot be reeled back in, though we throw thousands of words after it. The same is true for a needed word left unspoken.

How much more should we consider the importance of words that we are given by God for others?

Let me be clear. This is not about eloquence; this is about love. If we are commanded to love those around us through our words, how dare we keep silent? If we are designed to be a blessing, why do we allow curses to come so much more easily?

And if we feel that God is prompting us to affirm another person, whether we know them or not (and whether we like them or not!), what sorrowful disobedience if we keep silent for fear of prying or presuming!

I feel so inadequate to this task, too timid and unwise. However, I have hope that while I may be inarticulate (or even inaccurate!), God is not. He is the source of all blessing, and he wants to use me, me in His work here on earth. How can I refuse?

So may God’s blessing be heavy in your own lives and on your own lips,  that you might experience the loveliness of being the voice and hands of God in the life of a person whom Jesus longs to bless.

Your turn: Describe an incident in which someone blessed you significantly through their words. How have you blessed someone in the last month?

Favorite reads on spiritual formation

410Rraa1pPL._SL500_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-73_OU01_SL160_If you had to pick just one resource on spiritual formation, what would it be?  If you're stumped, you're not alone. I asked the amazing women of the Redbud Writer's Guild the same question, and my sisters struggled to narrow it down. Here's to the amazing ladies who managed this great feat. And here are their picks, in alphabetical order by title:

(click on their names to visit their blogs)

One last note: one of our own, Kelli Trujillo, wrote a book on disciplines, The Busy Mom's Guide to Spiritual Survival.

Your turn: if you had to pick just one resource on spiritual formation, what would it be? And why?

A prayer for your Friday

Prayer from church father Augustine on finding God after a long search:

Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli, 1480, Chiesa di Ognissanti, Florence, Italy, wikipedia.com

Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new. Too late have I loved you!  You were within me but I was outside myself, and there I sought you! In my weakness I ran after the beauty of the things you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The things you have made kept me from you - the things which would have no being unless they existed in you! You have called, you have cried, and you have pierced my deafness. You have radiated forth, you have shined out brightly, and you have dispelled my blindness. You have sent forth your fragrance, and I have breathed it in, and I long for you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst for you. You have touched me, and I ardently desire your peace.

-Augustine, Confessions, X, 27, 38

Describe a turning point or "aha" moment when you realized you longed for your Creator more than the Created things he made. How did this change things for you?

"The Lord is here" and other consolations

About a month ago or so, I joined the Dallas Willard is My Homeboy facebook group. (Yes, this group actually exists.) I share this to let you know that I am in love with the man, spiritually speaking, as I've stated in the past on the blog. Unlike his other fans on the facebook group, however, I have yet to read all his materials. I want to read them slowly, and over and over, so I can digest the truth and wrestle with it and be formed more deeply into the image of Jesus. So, just to clarify, with a bit of tongue in cheek, I'm in love with Jesus. And I respect the writing of DW because he points me to Jesus and his Kingdom so winsomely.   

That said, I stumbled on to a video of Dallas last weekend. In it, some youngish folks, maybe some really hip millennials or something, were asking Dallas about his daily spiritual practices. Sort of a spiritual "day in the life of DW" kind of thing. If you're interested, you can watch the video here:

Here's what struck me from the video, something so small and obvious that it might just be revolutionary:

"The Lord is here."

Before his death earlier this year, Dallas would say this before rising out of bed each morning. It was a way of training himself to be mindful of the Lord's presence, that God is always with us. We are not alone in this life. And the reason that this small thing feels revolutionary is because when I'm discouraged, as I have felt lately, I forget this one true thing.

It feels like Satan is winning on a lot of fronts lately, and I feel powerless to change things, and I get lonely and discouraged. But since hearing this from Dallas, I've been practicing it each morning before I rise. "The Lord is here!"—because he is here. It is impossible for me to be truly alone, no matter what comes.

If it's good upon rising, it's good at other times, too. "The Lord is here" I remind myself when someone forgets we're supposed to meet, or I feel dejected about my childlessness, or I wonder if I'll ever find my way back into leadership in a church I love. "The Lord is here."

There is a constancy to this sentence, an understanding that God of all people will not run away from me. He is here, abiding with me, loving me, caring for me, pursuing me. Right here. I pray that no matter what you face today you'll be able to return to this one simple but true thing.

He is here. He is for you. He will never leave your nor forsake you.

Five great ways to get some Bible in your day

"The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul." -Psalm 19:7a, NIV A few weeks ago I wrote this about spiritual formation: "What if the Bible transforms into sweet manna for one whose stomach is grumbling, loudly..."

This is my prayer for you and me, that God's Word would become our food, the tastiest and most satisfying of morsels. Fortunately, it's now easier than ever to dig in. Check out these five easy (and free) ways to get more Bible in your day: 

1. Biblegateway.com parallels - Pick a passage of Scripture and examine a passage side-by-side in a multitude of versions. Great for comparing and digging down to the meaning of a passage. Suggestions: NIV, NLT, ESV, RSV, side-by-side. 2. Biblegateway.com audio, Max McLean - I listened to the entire book of Acts on my iPhone while driving. Good for listening to long—or short—portions of Scripture dramatized. Click on the "continuous play" square. McLean will announce the beginning of each chapter. Truth be told, I'm smitten with McLean's Bible-reading abilities. 3. Dailyaudiobible.com - This amazing community features Brian Hardin, a student of God's Word who has beautifully read the Bible through for this online community for the last seven years. Thanks to Brian and his gang, I'm halfway through listening to the Bible, made even easier by the .99 app I downloaded for my iPhone. What a fantastic idea to read Scripture in community, in 15-20 minutes each day. 4. Read one chapter of Proverbs a day for one month or 31 days. 5. Go deeper. Pick one passage of Scripture—for instance, the Sermon on the Mount—and read all of it each day for five days. Take 5-10 minutes to meditate and write out a key principle from the passage each day. Note what you discovered by reviewing all five days at the end of the week.

Your turn: what's your tip for helping others get "more Bible in their day?" And thanks in advance for sharing.

Listening

(Congratulations to commenter Monica Brand, who won an autographed copy of the book Refuse to Do Nothing.) Formation Fridays are for you, dear one: explore old and new ways to be beautifully formed into the image of Jesus. Because He calls you Beloved, the One that He loves, the One that he delights in.

"There is much I can do for you, Lord!" I say, tapping my foot, to-do list in hand, type-A personality in tow.

The response: absolute silence, deafening.

"Remember the high D & high S I scored on the DISC profile, Father?? I'm thinking a leadership position filled with about 50% people interaction would be perfect for ME, don't you agree?"

*Crickets.* The heavens are silent. Circumstances close in. Future uncertain. 

Perhaps I should try listening. That "be still and know that I am..." stuff. Why does it take a life so-outside-of-my-control to bring me to a place of sitting at his feet? 

"Few things are needed—or indeed only one," Jesus said. "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:42 NIV)

The Savior of the world inverted the social order to praise Mary of Bethany for in essence, being a female disciple—and I cannot come to him, sit at his feet, and listen? I cannot take him up on his lavish invitation? I cannot hear his voice because my own is so loud and insistent?

Where is the duct tape when I need it?

***

A few months ago at a spiritual retreat, one of the directors shared her journey into the spiritual disciplines. She talked of her meeting with a spiritual director, and how this person encouraged her that she had done everything "right" in working for God, but that she now needed to celebrate with God, to enjoy him. When praying, to literally sit in God's presence and bask in his love.

Her response: "Does that count?" Does that count for what? she said at the retreat session. Or to put it a different way: who is counting anyway? You? God?

The retreat director, Pastor and author Sharon Garlough Brown gave us a suggestion on how we might listen to our heavenly Father.

She suggested we sit quietly with God and ask this question: "Lord, what do you think of when you think of me?"

I dare you to try it. Be quiet for as long as it takes to actually hear something. (Most likely not an audible voice, of course, but a quiet nudge.)

If the voice is condemning and harsh and critical, you are not hearing from Jesus. He is redemptive, loving, kind, and insistent on you knowing you are His Beloved. But if the voice speaks with challenging truth and love and quiets you and reminds you of your value in the eyes of Almighty God, you might be hearing from the God of the universe.

I am still working on doing this regularly, because when I do, inevitably I begin to believe that He loves me unreservedly, and pursues me passionately, and cares for me tenderly. Life recenters, horrible disappointment coming into focus, into balance with all the good gifts I have received.

But the hardest part of this whole darn thing is just learning to be quiet. Once I am quiet, I want to listen. Abba, I say in a small, childlike voice, I want to know: What do you think of when you think of me?

Your turn: What keeps you from listening to God's voice? What fruit emerges when you hear from him?