Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23)
Life has kicked into gear around here. No more sipping iced tea on the porch. Summer is over and September calls for organization and productivity. It can feel like a shock to the system after months of an easier pace. Do you have so many balls in the air that you are afraid one is going to drop? Are you hustling through your day, yet in the evening, doubt that you have done enough?
We live at a time in history that is more productive and efficient than ever before, yet so many of us are walking around (rushing around) accompanied by a strong sense that we fall short of who and what we are supposed to be. If this describes your life, how long has it been like this? Weeks? Months? Years?
We can so easily fall into the habit of just existing. Of measuring the value of our lives by our productivity, by whether or not we get the job done, by how far we climb up the ladder. But none of those things can give us joy.
I was talking to someone about this pace the other day. She said it sounded to her like I was treading water while trying to keep a bunch of balls in the air, which sounds pretty much impossible. That description wasn't news to me. It didn't feel particularly insightful, just observant. But then she went on to say something that really stopped me in my tracks. “I think that at the same time, you are kicking your heart away from you. Not because you think your heart doesn't matter. You just don't have time to stop and take care of it.”
I haven't been able to get her words out of my head. I know that above all else, I need to guard my heart. I believe wholeheartedly that everything I do flows from my heart. The heart is the essence of who I am, not what I do. It's where joy is found.
Joy does not reside in a life that is all about checking the boxes, even if the boxes are for really good things like spiritual growth, service, and loving your family. When most of what we do is preceded by “I should” or “I must,” then there's a pretty good chance that we are lacking in the joy department. But this is a tricky thing. God asks us to obey Him, and so a ton of things get put on our “I must” list. People around us need to be actively loved, and that makes the “I should” list a million miles long.
I'm committed to wrestling through this paradox. I want to continue to be sold out for Christ. I want to love people tangibly, and I want to obey God completely. But I want to figure out how to do those things in a way that doesn't feel like one enormous should. Not just because it doesn't feel good-it's because the motivation isn't right. And when we operate for too long simply because we must and we should, we become robotic, and a little bit dead inside. I want to avoid this at all costs, and I'm sure you do, too.
I want to fight for joy, because “the joy of the Lord is my strength,” (Nehemiah 8:10). If I don't have joy, I'm weak-prone to burnout, discouragement, and frustration. I believe “the joy of the Lord” comes from knowing we are God's beloved daughters, and living out of that reality. As a loving father, God wants us to experience getting lost in pure delight. He wants us to be replenished. He wants the blinders off our eyes so that we can see all that we have to be grateful for. He wants us to take time to rest. In fact, He's commanded that we rest. (Exodus 20:8) He knows us completely-we are the apple of His eye. (Zechariah 2:8) He wants us to take the time to figure out what truly brings us joy. Not what numbs us, distracts us, or just keeps us busy.
There will always be many things that simply need to get done. Laundry doesn't fold itself and the bills need to be paid. But let's make sure that we lift up our hearts each day and give them a little tending. That we hold them our to our heavenly Father and ask Him to pour out His love and grace over them. He never withholds that request. And let's look for the little things that bring us joy, and give ourselves permission to lay down the uncompleted to do list, and do something that simply breathes life into our hearts.
May we truly LIVE EVERY DAY of our lives and continue to fight for JOY.
2015 is here! I love turning to a new calendar page, using fresh notebooks with no markings, and looking ahead to limitless possibilities in the coming months. But the minute that someone suggests I make a New Year's resolution, I start to feel adrift. I become increasingly aware of all the things I am barely getting done as it is. Thinking of grabbing hold of another goal makes me feel like I'll get pulled under and never be able to come up for air.
Those of you impressive people who have resolved to swear off plastic grocery bags forever, or who are going to run a half marathon, or are going to lose a bunch of weight - I applaud and admire you. I invite you to come over and organize my closets. We could have a great time chatting and I promise to make you a lovely cup of tea. But I can't join you in pursuing your new year's resolutions because just thinking about it is making me feel stressed out and inadequate.
As I write this, I'm looking out at Megunticook River in Camden, Maine. The river is currently covered by a sheet of ice but during the summer our dock is surrounded by kayaks. My parents gave our older kids kayaks for their birthdays a few years ago, and pretty much every day of the summer my dad reminded them to tie up their kayaks to the dock. “One of these days, you're going to wake up in the morning and your kayaks will be gone,” he'd warn. But tying up a kayak takes forever, so more often than not, the kayaks were just dragged onto the dock and turned upside down.
One night, a storm hit Camden as we slept. Sure enough, when we woke in the morning, one of the kayaks was missing. My dad didn't need to say a word; everyone knew that the kayak should have been tied up, and that an expensive gift had possibly been lost. The kids searched for it for days, and when it was finally found, it was dirty and banged up and hard to pull out of the weeds.
The kids didn't enjoy taking time to search for the kayak, but probably the hardest thing for them was the knowledge that they'd disappointed their grandfather. He'd sacrificed to give them such a generous gift, and they hadn't valued it enough to take care of it. The untethered kayak makes me think about my spiritual life. God's given me the incredible gift of a close relationship with Him, and He promises to guide me and strengthen me through every moment of my life. It cost Him everything to offer me that gift. How does He ask me to take care of it? The answer is found in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Remain in Christ, being as grafted to Him as a branch is to the vine, like tightly tying the kayak's rope to the dock.
To remain in Christ takes time. And we are so busy. It's just so much quicker to take the easy way out. All too often, we settle for pulling the kayak up on the dock instead of tethering ourselves to God.
We talk about God, instead of talking to Him. We get our bodies to church, but keep our hearts somewhere else. We sit down to read the Bible, but end up reading about someone else's experience of God instead. We run on fumes from time spent with God a long time ago, hoping that it'll be enough to fill us and keep us going today.
All those things can look good from the outside. When the day runs smoothly, we'll probably feel that it's good enough. A good enough relationship with God. A good enough spiritual life. The kayak will stay on the dock and be there in the morning.
Unless the storm hits. And it will. It can be in the form of an unwelcome phone call in the middle of the night. It can come in the words of one who promised to be faithful but no longer wants to keep that vow. It can come when the accumulation of disappointment or loneliness or uncertainty just gets to be too much. It can come when kids are whiny or hopes are shattered or unkind words pierce the heart. It's at those times that we need an anchor for the soul.
Christ is our hope, and He is the anchor for our souls.
The daily disciples of prayer, Bible reading, receiving the sacraments…these are the ropes that connect us to the anchor. His presence and His promises never fail. He is steadfast. Our part is to remain in Him. Remaining in Him every once in a while won't bring the change and the peace that we long for. But if we resolve to remain in Christ every day, there will be no limit to the transformation and soul rest that we can experience.
My one resolution for 2015? Remain in Christ, tethered-every day-to the Anchor of my soul.
It has come to this. My two-year-old, Charlotte, ate cookies for lunch. We have officially limped over the finish line of one of the longest summers in history, and that was the best I could do today. Summer break began on May 23rd, and the start of the new school year has been long in coming, as in post Labor Day. Please do the math with me and throw some compassion my way. Forts, crafts and popsicles are great, but we had definitely gotten to the point that we needed some structure and routine.
I had pictured myself getting my lovely children back to school, and diving into the new routine with vigor and focus. In my defense, I did manage to get to the grocery store today. But when you are feeding a small army (bless them all) sometimes gathering the week's provisions gets lengthy. And the bakeries in the grocery stores in Florida give cookies away to whiny children. Lord have mercy. It's the best thing ever. They even let you come back for seconds if you really need it. I don't know when I've last felt so cared for.
So after Charlotte had filled up on cookies, it's not very surprising that she wasn't interested in carrots or apples. Feeling very guilty, I laid her sugary self down for a nap. I looked at all the groceries in bags on the counter, and all I wanted to do was take a nap myself. After seriously considering it, I felt even more pathetic. “Get it together,” I said to myself. “Now is your chance to do something productive. Get moving!” Instead, I just sat down.
Opening up my Bible to the book of Hebrews (if you are thinking that I was procrastinating from my household duties by doing this instead of putting away the groceries, you are right, but Jesus always wins), I read the following:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are- yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16
What sweet, sweet words. Sometimes we just desperately need someone who understands us when we are at our weakest-to be met with an I understand instead of a pull yourself together. This is what Jesus does. He sympathizes with us as we are overcoming weaknesses, because He knows what it feels like. He “has been tempted in every way, just as we are.” He recognizes our battles for what they are, because He has already tasted just how hard it can be to keep on, to stay faithful, to not give up.
He knew that there would come a point for all of us when the best that we had just wouldn't be enough. Nowhere is that more true than when it comes to our eternal salvation. No amount of great effort or white knuckling makes us perfect enough to stand in God's presence. There will always be a gap between the best a person can offer and the perfection God requires to spend eternity with Him. “The wages of sin is death,” (Romans 3:23), and even a good deed done with selfish motive is enough to keep us separated from God.
Thankfully, “we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (Heb. 4:14). After His crucifixion and death, Jesus entered His Father's presence in heaven, offering His blood in place of ours. God the Father saw Jesus' sacrifice, and was satisfied with the price Jesus paid for our sin. Because of Jesus, we can draw near.
But when our weaknesses and failings are front and center in our minds, we can get tempted to run away from God instead of towards Him, allowing Him to help us in the process of overcoming weaknesses. It's at those times that we need to be reminded that we can approach the throne of God with confidence instead of fear. Why can we do this? It's because Jesus sits on a Throne of Grace, not a throne of condemnation. When something in our heads tells us that we have to get ourselves fixed up before we can come to God, we can be certain that it is not God's voice. He invites us to bring our questions, doubts, fears and failures and to come close.
Hebrews 4:14 encourages us to “hold firmly to the faith we profess.” We need to be reminded to hold firmly to these truths because it's so easy to trade them for a checklist of ways we need to perform in order to earn God's approval.
God doesn't ask you to perform for Him. He asks you to be in relationship with Him. He receives you as you are, and offers rest. This is the place you can come and just be yourself. Overcoming weaknesses is impossible on our own. You can drop the baggage, drop the burden of performance, and just let Him wrap His arms around you in unconditional love. He's waiting for you at the Throne of Grace.
When, when, when am I going to learn? I am certain that God is wondering just how many times it's going to take for me to get it through my head that there is a limit to what I can stick on my calendar and actually get done with a sweet spirit.
The school year finally ended, and next was Laeka's high school graduation. I wish that I had been fully appreciating the milestone, living in the moment, and deeply feeling the passage of time, but I was actually just trying to keep one-year-old Charlotte from choking on little things she'd try to put into her mouth.
Immediately after graduation, we hosted four different guests, and my house was full of kids who were constantly at home and instantly bored. Also on the calendar was a wedding and doctors' appointments.
Even though the parents of the senior class had already given a wonderfully fun group graduation party for the seniors, I really wanted to give Laeka his own party. (I had seen the cutest invitation on Pinterest!) This extra little fiesta was scheduled for the day before we were leaving at 6 a.m. for a family vacation.
Adding to the joy and general low-stress atmosphere in the house was the need to provide food for the guests and to clean up the house. My parents were spending the night and then leaving with us on our trip. Having anyone spend the night means that one of my boys has to move out of his bedroom, and the room has to be scrubbed down. In my defense, I had done this a full day ahead of schedule, and then reminded him to sleep on the blow-up mattress in his brother's room.
And this brought me to the crisis point. The morning of the blessed party dawned, and I walked into my son's bedroom only to find… my son… in his bed! Clothes were strewn everywhere, empty potato chip bags were on the floor, and a dog with muddy paws was curled up on the duvet. What's more, he had clearly been eating Cheetos in bed because there were orange powdered fingerprints all over the sheets. And I lost it. All the frustration of the too-busy week found an outlet in this one moment.
What did I want from my son? A simple apology. But the apology didn't come. Instead, he avoided eye contact with me throughout the morning, and tried to make up for his actions by doing all sorts of unpleasant tasks like changing Charlotte's diaper, cleaning out the refrigerator, and mowing the lawn. I appreciated his efforts, but what I really wanted was for him to simply say he was sorry.
When, when, when was he going to learn? Suddenly, that question sounded a little familiar. How often have I responded to God in my own failures in the same way that Jonathan had responded to me? I owe God an apology, but avoid Him instead. I try to make up for my sin by doing other good things, hoping that God will notice those things and ignore the fact we must confess our sin. How much better it would be if I would just own my mess from the get-go, and simply tell Him “I'm sorry.”
In the words of Frederick Buechner, “To confess your sins to God is not to tell [God] anything [God] doesn't already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.”
When we don't confess our sin, it saps our spiritual strength. As David said in Psalm 32, “Because I kept silent, my bones wasted away; I groaned all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength withered as in dry summer heat. Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide. I said, ‘I confess my transgression to the Lord,' and you took away the guilt of my sin.'” True refreshment comes from closeness to God.
When we confess our sin, He forgives. When He forgives, He wipes the slate clean. When our slate is clean, we have a spring in our step and a lightness in our spirit that feels as good as a breeze on a hot summer day.
Praying that your June is filled with days of refreshment and closeness to God!
As I stood in the checkout line at the grocery store today, I noticed the woman behind me showing her daughter the delicious deli-prepared meals in their cart. I looked back at my two bulging shopping carts and thought ahead to the hours it was going to take me to make the meals for the week. She caught my eye and looked at all my food, so I explained that I have seven kids and that three of them are teenage boys. “Oh, enjoy it,” she smiled. “The time goes so fast!”
“Really?” I wondered. Because sometimes it can feel like time moves slowly, and that I've been doing the same things, over and over again, for ages. People say that the days are long but the years are short. I can see how that's true. But my reality is that when little Charlotte heads off to college, I'll be sixty, and we will have been parenting for thirty-seven years. That's a lot of meal preparation.
After I got home and unpacked the groceries, I made a cup of tea. It was 5 p.m. That's the time of day I most want to sit down, but if I do, I find it really hard to get back up. The clock crept toward 5:30 p.m., then 6 p.m., and my family started getting hungry. I announced that I just didn't feel like making dinner. What I really wanted was for Alice from the Brady Bunch to come through the door and make dinner for us. But then I wanted her to disappear, so no one would know that I had an “Alice.” I didn't want anyone to think I was a slacker. No one seemed very interested, least of all my husband, who was reading the paper and only half-listening. So I finally made myself get up to prepare dinner (it's in the oven), and I think we'll be eating around 8:30 p.m.
It's hard to remain steadfast, especially at this time of year. Summer beckons, and the desire to quit working so hard is strong. It can be especially difficult to remain faithful doing the little things well-all those thankless tasks we're tired of doing. Is there an area in your life where you feel tempted to procrastinate or quit? Yet, you know, like I do, that God is asking you to persevere and finish well?
When I feel the urge to settle for mediocrity, I challenge myself with the following thoughts. They help me re-focus and remain steadfast. I hope they'll encourage you, too!
When I'm sitting on the couch at 5 p.m. instead of staying faithful to the little things, it's often because I'm worn out. I've been going all day, and don't feel I have anything left to give. That's when I need to ask myself where I've spent my best efforts. Have all my energies been sapped by activities outside my home so that what I have to give my family is leftovers? Who gets my best? I say that my highest priority is my relationship with God, then my husband, then my children. I'm convicted by Psalm 101:2, “I will walk in my house with blameless heart.” It's going to be hard for me to apply this verse if I've given my best efforts elsewhere.
When I'm feeling tired and bored with my responsibilities, it helps me to look up and look ahead. What is it that I'll want to have accomplished in five, ten, or twenty years? In what way is this small task a part of a bigger vision? Proverbs 29:18 reminds me, “Without vision the people perish.” We don't achieve our long-range purpose or vision through one heroic self-sacrificing event. Purposeful living is made up of many little decisions-small steps of faithfulness. Little things matter.
“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).This verse can be applied over a lifetime, and also to every day. At the close of each day, I ask myself, “Have I finished well? Have I given time to the things that matter most? Am I leaving undone things that are going to make tomorrow more difficult?”
Let's resolve to remain steadfast in what God has placed before us. Our summer rest will be all the sweeter when we feel we've given our best to what matters most.
Holding you close to my heart as I pray for you,