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On behalf of the war-torn weary…

I have been heavy-hearted this last week by the situation in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of you have seen the articles or emails recently and are aware of the troubling news from Goma this week, where rebel militia have taken control of the city, emptied the prison of its criminals, created chaotic distress for thousands and left many fearing for their lives. The men and women of the ALARM staff and their families are among those whose lives lie on the fault line of this tumultuous violence in Goma.

What do you do?

The words of Proverbs 24 flash through my mind, “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not He who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not He who guards your life know it? Will He not repay each person according to what he has done?”

Again, what do you do?

Those brothers and sisters have been in the whispers of many prayers that have gone up from this house in the last several days, and this is an invitation for you to join with us in a special way tomorrow:

Celestin Musekura, ALARM founder and president, appeals to the friends and partners of ALARM to join us in concerted and fervent fasting and prayer for the people and nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). ALARM has designated Tuesday, November 27, 2012 as the day to lift our hearts and voices to God. Our staff in Goma is counting on our prayers.

There may be many things we are unable to do for a terrorized people on the other side of the globe, but James reminds us that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. He goes on in 5:17 to shock the daylights out of me with this statement: “Elijah was a man just like us…”

Let that sink in a moment.

Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.

God took a man who feared Him, who had Deuteronomy 28 burning in his soul, and used him to impact the course of a nation. Would that the cries of Psalm 10 burn in our souls in a way that impacted the course of another…

“Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless… You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.

 -post by Sarah Stehlik, 11/26/2012

 

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“Lord, teach us to pray…”

We hear it often: “We are praying for you guys.” And I always say thank you, and I always mean it deeply. Maybe at one point in my life I used to be vaguely underwhelmed by statements like that, take prayer as a routine exercise or a well-intentioned sentiment. Maybe that was when I preferred to order my life in a fairly self-sustainable manner, and prayer didn’t seem all that essential to accomplishing the goals I was already pretty well set up to tackle. Maybe that was a long time ago. 

These days people tell us they pray for us, and my heart swells, because I know better about life and better about prayer and better about walking with a perfectly wise and incomprehensibly tender Savior. And among all the stories on the nature or power of prayer, this one may not be the most sensational or miraculous, but it is one of the dearest to my heart. And perhaps it explains why it matters to me when I hear the words, “We’re praying for you.”

It’s October, 2011. Paul and I have been in talks with ALARM for a few months about the possibility of serving long term, and now we are just weeks away from heading over to Africa for an exploratory visit. We are making all the final preparations for our two week trip- passports and extra copies, travel pillows, anti-malarials. Paul is gathering photography gear for time we’ll be spending with child-headed homes. I want to bring these orphans something, but what? I contemplate everything from the functional to the trivial. Utensils? A washcloth? A tennis ball? I’ve seen lollipops bring smiles to faces. A thousand things… I don’t know. I really want to bring them something they’ll love, I tell the Lord as I’m praying over our trip, and I don’t know what they love, but You do. And I ask Him to show me what to take them. 

The week before we leave, I am walking aisles overflowing with every sort of toy and trinket ever manufactured, and I see them on the bottom shelf… bags of marbles. Hmm, I think to myself, marbles. The colorful bags are dropped into my cart and the next week into my suitcase, and days later our plane is touching down in the land of a thousand hills.

Rwanda is beautiful. One of the men from the ALARM staff greets us at the airport and spends the afternoon showing us Kigali, opening up to us the history and hopes of his native land. And as we sit with him the next day, we ask him about his own life, his childhood. Where did he grow up? And is it far? “Four hours away- three and a half if you are a good runner,” he says. I ask him what sorts of things he enjoyed doing as a child in his village.

He smiles and thinks, puts a long finger to the side of his face, searching for a word in English. It escapes him. So he makes a small circle with his thumb and index finger and holds it up to us. Maybe my heart will pound right out of my chest in that moment. Then he is flicking his thumb, “How do you say…”

Marbles???

“Yes!” he says, “this was our favorite game.” And he explains the different ways they would play with them using buttons from their shirts… and the trouble they would get into when their mothers would find their shirts buttonless. It’s an amusing anecdote he is telling, but I am in tears.

I know what they love, my heart hears with crystal clarity, and it matters to Me.

There are fifty good things I could have packed in that bag without a second thought but not one thing that could have more stirred me to worship in that moment. I have offered my share of mission-less, worship-less, self-indulgent prayers in my life which have gone pitifully unanswered. I have also been amazed by some of the other prayers an infinite Galaxy Creator is willing to answer. 

And I have learned that prayer is simply seeking Him, and the reward is nothing more and nothing less than finding Him. Like when you ask Him how to love a few impoverished kids and find a God tender enough to bend down as low as the bottom shelf of a toy aisle and put His sovereignty on display in front of your eyes through the childhood memories of a stranger.

“We are praying for you…” We are seeking Him for you… We treasure it.

-post by Sarah Stehlik, 11/19/2012

 

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Because sometimes He doesn’t move mountains…

In my last post, I wrote about selling our house and the unusually smooth process it has been. We hold it as a gracious gift from the Lord along this journey to move to East Africa. But then a thought occurred to me. A potential miscommunication of sorts. And I felt compelled to clarify something…

Even though selling our house has been an unnaturally smooth process thus far, for which it is easy to give thanks, the whole of our decision and preparation to move to Africa has been not at all smooth… for which we also give thanks, not with ease but by will. We can be prone to see God so quickly when things are tangibly productive according to our sensibilities and conversely to assume that “God must not be in it” when things seem too hard or too complicated. And I just want to say, especially perhaps to those of you following the Lord through circumstances that are not “unnaturally smooth” but instead laborious and overwhelming, God is in that too. Sometimes following God is hard. Very hard. In fact, consider just about every single person in Scripture called by God to do anything. When did He ever appear to anyone and ask them to do something easy? Yes, there are those moments of divine intervention, but even for the great men of faith in Scripture, it was hard. One of the most striking passages to me in all of the Bible is in 1 Kings 19, where Elijah “came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life…'” He had just called down fire from heaven. God had adjusted His weather patterns for three and a half years according to the prayers of this man. But even Elijah had times that seemed so rough that he thought he couldn’t take it anymore.

Or consider the apostle Paul. Yes, the man learned the secret of joy in all things, but joy in all things did not equal smooth sailing. Following Christ was also times of “great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.” And his obstacles and trials were not evidence that he was off track or that ‘God wasn’t in it”; rather he explains, “this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.

I say all this because we have a culture obsessed with safety, comfort and convenience and it is alarming how great a role we allow those things to play in our lives as believers. We can talk each other out of just about anything risky in the name of “wisdom”. We prefer areas of service that allow us to “operate in our strength zones” in the name of spiritual gifts and can grow to assume that God wouldn’t ever ask us to do anything we wouldn’t want to because He has other people “with a heart” for those kinds of things.

I wonder what Jonah would think of that reasoning.

I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture of the Christian life. On the contrary, I mean to hold out an alternative to the small picture of the Christian life in which we mostly do only things we like and are good at that go smoothly and are manageable, for which we can see positive results that we can measure and feel good about. We can be much quicker to hold out a list of practical concerns than we are to offer courage to each other to attempt impossible things for the sake of the gospel. And we can be so easily disheartened when the road is rough and the waters deep.

So for those of you celebrating a mountain moved by the providential hand of God, I rejoice with you like crazy. For those of you who will not have a mountain moved today, but will experience the providential hand of God giving you the strength to climb one more step up, may you be filled with the joy and faith that God is building you and accomplishing His purposes with each step, however small. And for those of you who have quiet dreams of big things for the sake of the gospel that are being drowned out by the pragmatic strategies of common sense that masquerade as true wisdom- true wisdom that begins not with human sensibilities but the fear of God… may you be ever discontent with a path that is walkable by human ability, may you be willing to labor day after day on roads smooth and rough with all the strength He gives. May you have the conviction of Noah, the perseverance of Moses, the courage of David, the focus of Daniel, the resolve of Nehemiah… all of whom labored and battled to fulfill God’s call on their lives against all common sense. May you have just enough mountains moved to sustain your faith and refresh your soul and not so many that you lose your taste for climbing. And may we all live as if we believe all authority in heaven and earth belongs to the One we follow, who sends us out and promises that He is with us. Always.

-post by Sarah Stehlik, 10/11/2012

 

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Two years at Willow…

I was thinking about it last week when he trotted into my house… the little boy who has trotted into my house hundreds of times. He came in one afternoon last week and greeted me in his little man-ish way, and I gave him a smile and called out his name. And I was happy to see him.

And the happiness struck me because though it’s been there for a while, it has not always been this way. Scores of times he knocked at our door and my heart sunk at the sound. Maybe because he is the type of person one might consider (that I might consider) “high-maintenance” or “extra grace required” or some other completely ungodly designation. I cringe as I confess it, but there it is. And honestly, is there any other kind of human? Are some of us gifts to God and others just baggage He has to carry?

Anyway, I did not know he was God’s gift to me. I could not envision that he would be such an instrument of God in my life, because I was so blinded by the way he obliterated all boundaries and respect for my personal space. And so many days he came knocking so many times each day. And I tired of it. I tired of him… my flesh feeling almost at times like he held me hostage. In my subconscious justification of myself, I wordlessly argued that I was already giving enough time and energy, and this little boy was just asking for too much.

I wrestled with it for months though, because it felt so unloving. But it wasn’t. There was plenty of love. Love for my time. Love for my space. Love for my comfort. Love for my control over my schedule. And I remember praying last summer, “Lord, remind my heart that he is the fatherless.” And I remember that even the very day I prayed it, this little boy came over and shared for the first time about losing his dad. Sometimes God can be quite clear about prayers He is willing to answer.

And at some point God changed my heart for him. And changed my heart through him. I’m not sure when it happened. Maybe it was while we were reading stories or sharing a snack or making Christmas cookies or playing whiffle ball in the cul de sac, but when he walked in my house last week and I smiled to see him, I thought about it then… how God has used that little boy to bring me closer to Jesus.

And He did not do it through asking me to “set healthy boundaries” or “find the right balance” or other beautiful sounding things that offer the undeniable appeal of moderation. The Lord asked no less than the complete death of my will. And maybe because He knew how reluctant I can be to truly– truly— offer everything, he graciously sent a little boy to demand it. Every day.

And in the journey of submitting, He exposed how selfishness resides so stubbornly in me still, revealed more how extravagant the love of Christ is, taught me deeper how to discover joy in surrender and filled a little piece of the gap in a young boy’s life who doesn’t know any better than to ask for someone to fill it.

And my flesh would have skipped it all to have more quiet afternoons???

Two years ago this week we moved to this place. And I marvel still in gratitude at how God has used it in our lives to shatter our own kingdoms and increase our hunger for His.

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The Child Asks Me a Question…

It starts and ends here: the child asks me a question.

“Mommy, can you come to Friday chapel today?” my six year old says. I tell him that I would love to do it another time but that I can’t today.

“Oh. Are you going to jail?” he asks.

“Yes,” I tell him.

And I spend the morning visiting and worshiping with the group of women I wrote about back here.

I listen to their small group discussion over the Bible lesson. It’s the rich young ruler we discuss, and we all at that metal table find our likeness somewhere in his shoes… wanting to hold onto Jesus and something else too… willing to fall on our knees and cry “You are good” yet not quite believing He’s good enough to leave everything for. We contemplate the young man’s response to Christ’s recitation of the law. He says, “I have kept all these since I was a boy.” I read his words and my heart says, “Bull. You have not. I know that game. That false sense of satisfactory performance. As if the sinful human who has truly lived under the law would have the audacity to stand over the law and say ‘done’.” The rich young ruler speaks my native language and it is pride, and I am on to him because I was him.

Then one of the inmates reads her own words scrawled in her workbook. She has not lived under any delusion of self-righteousness. Not for a long time. She knows her unworthiness. And the tears that redden her eyes as she shares her gratitude for God’s grace bring to mind Jesus’ words to the religious leaders in Matthew 21:31 “…The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

Literally.

Nonetheless, the women I sit with at that table are living with very challenging realities… lives marked with sure consequences, some of which will remain with them for the remainder of their time on this earth. And as I look around at each of them I think how might your life had been different had you started walking with Christ twenty years ago? If someone had intervened when you were…

It is the previous afternoon and I am at Edison Middle School… which is very different from my recollections of junior high. For instance, none of my friends had probation officers. Nor did we have full time police officers patrolling our campus. None of my classmates ever spent the day running up and down the hall screaming profanities, taunting the authorities to “come and get him” and then hiding all over the place until finally apprehended by the cops. We were real small town like that.

One of the older students wanders the hall past my perch at the welcome desk, and I ask him where he’s supposed to be. He mumbles that he walked out of so and so’s class because she threw a book at him and hit him upside the head and now his head hurts. I smile and tell him to get back to class and stop giving his teacher reasons to throw things at him. He smiles, knowing that he has not fooled me with his innocence but complains again that his head hurts. I shake my head, tell him I’m pretty sure he can handle himself and urge him to go learn just one thing. “Just one thing,” I plead with him, “You can do that.” And to my surprise he nods and goes.

Maybe.

It was a hard afternoon honestly. Hard to see the power of grace through so much broken. So. Much. Broken. The parade of f-bombs past my desk as the kids change classes makes me sit there and think how do you get this hard by middle school? How are things this broken this early in life? And even before…

It is hours earlier in the morning when I am at Carver Elementary to work with my kindergartners, trying in meager minutes to make up gaps that are already widening and stretching like a canyon between them and a future of hope and fullness. I walk into the class with all those little bodies hopping around. Like fleas.

Really. They are 70% human, 30% flea at that age.

Their teacher, who is also part angel, welcomes me with her beautiful gray hair and tired smile. “I don’t know if I’m gonna make it, Sarah,” she says with a laugh. And amid the sea of hugs that the little crowd of flea-humans come to give, one little girl calls to me. She is tiny, and she is the one I wrote about here. And the child asks me a question:

Are you still praying for me???

Yes, sweetheart. I am praying like mad. Like a person with eyes wide open to what might so easily lie ahead for you and wide open to the so much better– so much better– that might otherwise lie ahead for you. I am praying like mad.

 

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Letters on Life, vol II

Dear…

… rainy gray skies, you are beautiful. And though the lovely women who teach my precious children are no doubt feeling the brunt of your recess-thieving force, I am loving you.

… Sonya Carson, I just read the first three chapters in the story of your son’s life. You remind me of the staggering privilege of motherhood, and your perseverance kindles the fear of God in me.

… upstairs boys’ bathroom, I don’t know what they did to you. I am very, very sorry. For you and me both.

… Christy Nockels, would you please just come stay in my living room singing this song all the time? I couldn’t really pay you… or give you sanitary bathroom facilities either at this point. But I would be so happy.

… teenage neighbor, you apologized for disturbing me when you and I had an interesting afternoon with the Dallas Police and fire department. No apology necessary. God is going after you, and to be brought in for a closer view was one of the highlights of my week.

… Paul Stehlik, thanks for being willing to do brave things like battle through the unknown, talk about how you feel, and look our children square in the eyes and tell them we’re having oatmeal again for breakfast. I could not love you more.

 

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“I lift my eyes up…” and the days that teach me to do it more

I see it in her face. Or rather, it’s what I don’t see in her face. She is in kindergarten, and I am at the neighborhood school where I help out, and we are walking the halls to a room where we will work on writing sentences.

It is the first thing I notice about her: there is no smile on her face. Not a trace. Not in her eyes, not in her cheeks. She wears one of the most serious, light-less expressions I’ve seen on such a small person.

I sit down at a table with the two students I’ve brought and hand them a reader about the fair. I explain that we are going to write our own sentences about it after we read it together. She reads when I ask and listens when it’s time for that too, and when we finish reading she pulls out her page and brushes her long dark hair out of her face. Sits and stares.

“What’s your favorite thing at the fair? What would you like to write about?” I ask. She sits quietly, thinks.

“I see my dad,” she says, and starts to pencil it out on blank white paper. I turn to help the other student with his next word, when she says plainly, “My dad is in jail. He went to jail this Christmas.” My heart sinks down at her words, as it always does when conversations turn this way. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” I answer, meaning every word deeply and feeling all their inadequacy at the same time. “He stole a cadillac.” She looks right at me, waits for my response.

The other student is waiting as well. One waits for some kind of hope to a fatherless nightmare and one waits for help spelling “nachos.” And I am in the middle of them. I look at her sad little eyes and tell her that I know it is very hard on her for her daddy to be in jail, and she looks right back into mine and says, “Every night I cry for him.”

What do you say to a little girl who tells you that? And why should she tell me? She doesn’t even know me. I had asked her to write about her favorite thing at the fair. And yet her honest little heart, in a way that takes my breath away, holds out the most painful thing in her world and lets me hold a small piece of it with her. And in all its brokenness and pain, it takes the form of a gift right now.

It is gift to me. Gift to walk these halls. Gift to help them learn. Gift to see their smiles and give my own. And gift to be invited into their sorrow and to be one who gets to offer kindness. Gift upon gift. Grace upon grace.

And in its own small way, it is gift to her. It’s not all the gift I want to give her- the one that fixes all her problems and gets her daddy out of jail and out of trouble and changes his heart that changes his life and heals her family… those are not gifts in my power to give her on a January Thursday morning. But I blink back tears and thank her for sharing with me. I tell her I will be praying for her and for her daddy, because Jesus loves them both very much. And for a few minutes on an ordinary school day she gets to unexpectedly share her burden with someone who cares.

It seems like the painfully smallest of gifts to give, really just a tiny seed of truth and love scattered on soil that is so young and yet so scorched already. But the Farmer who scatters them is utterly good, I remind myself. And He knows how to grow the most amazing things from the tiniest most unlikely beginnings. Like a kingdom even.

And times like these grow me, train me to look again and again to the One “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” … who knows how to make light from darkness, life from death and smiles on the face- even smiles in the heart- of a little kindergarten girl who misses her dad.

“I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me” – Jeremiah 32:27

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Two Windows to One Gift

It is my four year old who places a window beautifully in front of me that I might see the very face of God.

In the hustle and business of the morning routine we all scurry and scatter between breakfast and backpacks. Paul walks by the computer, turns on a song. And drum beat sets rhythm to our motion and melody makes its way through our moods. Ben finds me. He knows I know what he wants. He manages to suppress almost all of his delight under a mask of utmost seriousness. Almost. The subtly upturned corners of his mouth betray how much he loves this. He stands his 40 inches as tall as he can in front of me and stretches out his hand, palm open to the sky. He invites me to dance.

I take his hand, knowing that he will spin me til my back breaks from the twisting and angling it requires of me. And I will do it every time he asks. How could I not? This much preciousness? This much pure sweetness? And the only cost is a wrenched back and perhaps a walker at an early age? Done. Not even a tough one.

And it takes my breath away this morning, not only because this preschooler with brilliant brown eyes wearing a belt that missed half the loops melts my heart. It takes my breath away because God chose this for me. This was His gift to me this morning. A boy who invites me out of the ordinary routine into a dance of joy. And it is not just the boy who invites me but God Himself. The One who called me out of darkness into His marvelous light. And as precious and beautiful as the moment is with Ben- to the point of making my heart nearly burst… can I really get my arms around the fact that it pales in comparison to what God invites me into this morning? Can the Creator of the heavens and earth be outdone by a four year old? It is soul-filling to receive the moment from God and live it back to Him with joy.

And then it is my five year old… who also places a window before me that I might see the very face of God.

But he does not ask me to dance. He does not open his arms or invite me into his world. He folds his arms tightly, frustrated at a decision I make. Eyes glare, heart closes. I share the reasoning behind my choice. He resents. I warn of the consequence for an attitude that persists. He remains steadfast. And he is only out the door with dad and brothers for a few moments before his father directs him out of the car and back into the house for discipline. And then he is gone to school. No happy ending or neatly tied-up solution.

This is also God’s gracious gift to me this morning. A window of opportunity for Sam to experience love that is constant and boundaries that are for his good. It is my window to see a child who rejects authority and resists instruction and who is so dearly, dearly loved through every moment of it…and to know that the child is also me. That God has not been outdone by a mother this morning. I would give anything for that boy, and can I, with my selfish tendencies and short temper and myriad of weaknesses and inconsistencies… can I think I have done anything but only begun to grasp the depths of God’s love? And this love holds me. Holds Sam. Inspires trust and fills the soul.

I am so prone to blindness. To miss the things that matter the most in the craze and maze of the day to day. It has been months that I have prayed the verses of 1 Thessalonians 5: Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances… We memorized the words last fall, but I cannot live them like I can recite them, so I keep coming back to them over and over. Wrestling with the Lord over them. To find the deeper joy when one child wants to dance. Spill over gratitude when the angry one glares and withdraws. I tell my friend this morning across her kitchen table I do not want better behaved children in those moments of chaos and bickering and madness. I do not want a more effective parenting technique. I want to worship. That’s what I hunger for in those moments. And it is what God has been patiently leading me towards as I follow and stumble and bumble my way a little closer to always joy, always prayer, always thanks. Grateful for every window that points me to the God who is always there and always good.

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Bare Branches

It is a cold morning as the boys and I walk to school. I bask in the complex hues of blues, yellows and grays in the early January sky. The boys bicker, one about the bulkiness of his archnemesis- winter coat, one about the slow speed of the others, the other about how unpleasant the bickering is coming from the first two… I sigh and point them to the majesty of the morning heavens.

They are underwhelmed.

We walk on like this for a short distance until I stop everyone and shake my head gently. “No. No more. The choice to exchange the gift of this ten minute walk for a burden of misery is too sad. We cannot do it. You will not be happy with your choice. This walk is a gift. Let’s just say ‘thank you’ for it and choose to see it differently.” They stand there looking up at me, heads cocked back slightly, resting on thick coat hoods. Blink, blink. And miraculously they respond beautifully. Noah nudges Sam, starts walking alongside him at slower pace and they begin chatting, laughing. Connecting.

The littlest heap of boy walks beside me- 75% boy, 25% coat. He sticks his hands in his pockets and engages me in conversation, the kind where he lowers his voice a bit because he feels the sound of it is more grown up than his four years, and he talks about things he knows I like to talk about. Maybe he knows he melts me from the inside out when he does this. Maybe he knows I have a weakness for his cuteness, perhaps to a fault. Perhaps. It’s not as if I have ever tried to sneak peeks of him at recess by going upstairs to the window that faces the back of their school. At 10:45. The window that happens to be in my shower. Yes, it’s not as if I have ever spent late morning minutes fully clothed in my shower, peering out the window for him and his brothers. That would just be ridiculous.

And he will be away again at school today, but for a few more minutes we share a sweet conversation. He looks up at me with his grown up face on as we walk, “Mom, I know why we go to church- to learn about God. Easy.” He smiles, proud of his brilliant deduction. I smile too and nod. “And I know why I go to school- to learn about God,” he says. And in the next breath he has moved on with a pointing finger, “Hey, look at that bush.”

He points to an interestingly shaped bush to our left, and I ask him, “Do you know why I look at that bush?” He squints curiosity with his little eyes, shakes his head. “To learn about God,” I say. He thinks I am joking at first, but I am not. Wasn’t it why I pointed them to the morning sky in the first place? It was not just to see pretty colors or some desperate attempt at distraction to derail the negativity. The Creator was speaking. The heavens were screaming “Glory!” And we were drowning it out with our grumbling, eyes fixed to the sidewalk.

And I try to fit the depth of that truth into a four year old’s mind as we talk. That there is always something to learn of the Maker in what He has made. I think Romans 1:20 in my mind: “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.”

I think back to just days ago and how I was struck by this:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven – Ecclesiastes 3:1

And not just for trees but even for man, the Maker has ordained a time for everything. A time to be laid bare. To be stripped down from all that fills and even flourishes… and in the emptiness, wait quietly through soul winter for new growth to come.

This has not historically been something that has delighted me- this rhythm of spiritual seasons. Give me spring, give me summer, give me fall. Winter is punishment. Nobody prefers bare branches to the vibrant greens of spring or the crisp yellows and reds of autumn. And I have struggled in my years past to make peace with the spiritual winters that inevitably come. When there is nothing impressive or dazzling to show the rest of the world, no fruit to share, nothing that shouts “This woman is alive and thriving!” Winter has taken many forms in my life, and I have, at worst, resented and, at best, endured most of them.

Until the other day when I walked out of my house and saw the tree and whispered to myself, “What beautiful bare branches.”

And I reflected on the natural rhythm of life and its spiritual mirror in my soul and discovered that something had changed in my thinking. An awakening of sorts. An awareness that the bare branches are beautiful, not necessarily in themselves, but because their bareness is a Good Creator’s choice for them for a season. And in their bareness they speak of His eternal power and divine nature in their own unique way- a way that branches heavy with green leaf cannot. They have their own language to voice His wisdom and sovereignty. God has not asked to be seen through flourishing buds only. He also ordains to be seen through the lens of bareness too.

It is not punishment. It is revelation of glory. And I have wished it away a hundred times. But I want my boys to see God in everything.

I want to see God in everything.

To live under the anthem “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.”

The whole earth. Bare branches too.

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Labor of Love

The house is quiet. Three boys rest upstairs. The soothing mechanical whirring of the dishwasher is nearly the only sound to be heard. It was not this way an hour or two ago. When the house was all-fire charged with the energy of a whole mess of neighborhood kids. This one drawing, that one playing piano, that one trying to play the piano at the same time, these two playing a new game from Christmas, this one taking pictures of everyone else, those two flooding their cups with ice enough for six cups. Laughter. A sea of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Except for these two– jelly makes them throw up– peanut butter only. And the bread. Gasp. It is wheat bread. One of the older ones looks at me and shakes his head. “I don’t eat that kind of bread.” I smile back, “Well today I guess you do… unless you wanna be hungry. That’d be a bummer.” He shrugs and nods, acknowledging the wisdom.

He eats not one, but two sandwiches.

And I breathe out the desire for a jog and time on the couch with my book and I breathe in again the words of Jesus… who did not come to be served but to serve… And I feel the reality of a life that is unpredictable. Earlier in the week it was 10 kids…. when I thought it would be 4. Before that it was 4 hours… when I thought it would be 2… And my flesh still sometimes cringes that this life is so profoundly devoid of respect for my personal space. “Miss Sarah, can I have your money?” No, sweetheart. “Miss Sarah, can I spend the night? Tomorrow night? The next night?” “Mr. Paul, can I live here?” “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

And every day.

It is so the opposite of what feels manageable and measurable. But I walk five children home on this staggeringly beautiful afternoon, this afternoon that begs to be lived well. I walk with them, and two start to harass the three, and the three begin to work themselves into a retaliation frenzy. And I talk with them. We talk about loving people when it’s easy and loving people when it’s hard. We talk about the good choices we all make and the bad choices we all make. We talk about the deep stain that puts us all in the same horrible spot. And we talk about what Jesus did for us… how His life and death rescues us from sin and how His wisdom teaches us how to treat others.

And they listen.

At least some of them do. Some don’t. But I have to make peace with this, because it has always been this way. Even when Jesus taught it himself.

And I think to myself on my walk home that I love those kids. That I love my kids. And that sowing seeds of love and truth in their lives is worth the cost and labor. In fact is there even such a thing as love without sacrifice? If it costs me nothing, can I even call it love?

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. – 1 John 3:16

And in the end, if what I have isn’t love, then it wouldn’t matter if I were eloquent or brilliant or faithful or philanthropic or courageous… Paul says I have nothing if I don’t have love.

And I sit and marvel again at the birth remembered days ago… at the cost paid, the labor freely taken on to deliver a people, driven by love that did not cringe away from sacrifice or consider “personal space” something to be held onto. And the words ring so beautifully true, How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure…