Call it suffering

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I have a weird threshold for pain. Pinch me lightly and I will scream bloody murder. But break my arm and I will tell you it “feels a little sore.” It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was writhing in pain on my living room floor over what I would find out a few days later was  gallstones and would require surgery, that I finally conceded an important principle of pain — if it severely interferes with your ability to enjoy an episode of Parks and Rec, something is capital-W Wrong. It’s time to call the pain “pain,” and go to the doctor.

Up until that point, I was stubborn about physical pain and sickness. I showed up to work sick. I powered through migraines and more than one asthma attack. I thought I was being noble, but really, I was just being stubborn. Not acknowledging the pain didn’t make it better — it made it worse! I should have been home resting and drinking lots of fluids instead of going to work and passing my cold along. Trying to go about my business with a migraine — answering emails, watching TV, carrying on a simple conversation — only prolonged the migraine and affected the quality of my work.

I have a weird threshold for suffering, too. The light pinches — changing plans, miscommunications, a torrential downpour the same day I’ve schedule a pedicure — set my mind racing and put me on edge and invite all manner of first-world problems! admonitions. But the arm-breaking stuff — ending a relationship, hearing loss, depression — I deal with it by essentially trying to shame myself out of it. I think of all the ways something could be worse, or I think of people who I know have it worse, and scold myself for feeling any pain at all.

Why should I be sad about being single, after all, when so many marriages around me are struggling? What right do I have to days where being hard of hearing is draining, when there are people whose disabilities limit their very mobility? And maybe I’m not really depressed — there are people with actual problems out there, so just get over it, self. This isn’t really suffering.

But in the middle of one of these rants to myself recently, it occurred to me that by not calling my suffering “suffering,” I was missing out on the blessings of suffering. Yes, the blessings.

Consider what God tells us suffering is for:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. — Romans 5:3-5

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. — 2 Corinthians 1:3-5

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. — 2 Corinthians 1:8-9

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison… — 2 Corinthians 4:17

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. — James 1:2-3

If I don’t understand my circumstances as suffering — if I write them off as unlucky, or just a part of life, or if I determine they can’t possibly be suffering because other people have it far worse — then I’m only hurting myself. Refusing to acknowledge the pain keeps me from going to the Physician who heals. Not calling suffering “suffering” robs me of hope, glory, comfort, steadfastness, and blinds me to the power of God himself. How tragic would that be, to completely miss out on God because I’m too stubborn to admit that I’m hurting?

Our suffering isn’t just for our own selves, by the way; it’s for each other, too, “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Our suffering helps us to comfort each other, to help each other make it home. Not only do we need to stop dismissing our own pain, we ought to be extra wary to not dismiss each other’s. We’re all in different places in our own walks with the Lord and what seems like suffering to one person may seem like nothing to another. But we bear with one another in humility and gentleness and love (Eph. 4:1-3).

So let’s be slow to say things to each other and to ourselves like, “At least your pain isn’t this,” or “at least there is this good thing about it.” Let’s be reluctant to compare our pain to someone else’s, or each other’s pain to our own. Let’s not play the “Who Has It Worse?” game with each other at all. Instead, let’s be quick to call suffering “suffering” in all its different forms and trust that God is using the suffering for good in each other’s lives, for his glory, and for the building of his Church.

Call it suffering. Press in to it. Be blessed by it.

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Accepting the limitations of singleness

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I’m seeing more compassion, an increased willingness to engage, and more mindfulness of singles among gospel-centered bloggers. A common theme of some of the posts is that the Church is a family, and we should all be family — mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother — to each other.

“What if the Church,” Scott Sauls posits, “was filled with unmarried people but had no ‘single’ people, because unmarried people were as family to each other, and surrogate brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters to the rest of the Church?”

I love this train of thought, and have taken it to heart and seen its fruit in my own life. But as I’m delighting in this truth, I have to watch myself that I don’t take it too far and expect my friends and church family to be the same thing as having a family of my own. I have to remind myself (sometimes in a Captain Obvious way!) that there are relational limits, especially with married friends, that come with being single.

So here are three (more) truths for the (my) single heart:

Even singles are called to honor the marriage bed — to respect the boundaries of marriage. Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, the elect. He is not the Bridegroom of every single person who has ever lived. He is narrow in his pursuit of his Bride.

This is reflected in the exclusive nature of marriage. Husband and wife vow to forsake all others, to commit to each other above all others. They do not automatically lose friends as a result of this union, nor are they forbidden from having close friendships outside of their marriage. But marriage and family do reorder priorities.

My friendships with families, while lively and loving and familial to some degree, are marked by boundaries that respect their commitment. I’m not over at their house every night for dinner. The mom/wife isn’t out every night with me. Even during my most social weeks, I rarely see the same person or family twice. We spend a couple hours together, and then we go our separate ways for the night, for the week, for the month. This is appropriate, and normal, and right. I am not their primary ministry; their family is. That’s their assignment (1 Cor. 7:17), and they need to be faithful to that call. The way I love them is to get out of their way sometimes, so that they can serve where they’ve been called. That’s my assignment.

Being single means being single. It does not mean fabricating an intimate family life. Being single is a calling, and sometimes that calling means being the only person who pays the bills, takes out the trash, and makes the Major Life Decisions. That’s freeing some days, crippling others, but it is the lot of the single person to bear it all. As much as I love my church friends, and they me, there are limits to how present we can be in each other’s lives. We might get front-row seats or backstage passes to each other’s daily living, but we’re not actually in the intimate, mundane, on-the-road moments together. Married people are called to Do Life with a partner; single people are not. Those are our assignments, and we ought not deviate from them by trying to pretend singleness is something other than what it is.

Being single means a lot of waiting, longing, some tearful moments, and loneliness. But heart, don’t rush past any of that so quickly. They matter. They’re working for you an eternal glory that far outweighs the light and momentary pain. So don’t throw yourself into the nearest family in a vain effort to pretend singleness doesn’t hurt. Let it hurt. It is precisely in the waiting, in the longing, in the tearful nights, the loneliness, the wondering if it will always be like this (spoiler alert: it won’t), the uncertainty, the fear, the very alone-ness nature of singleness that increases my dependence on God who raises the dead, that hems me in so that I have no other recourse but to go to Him, that exhausts all my other idols so that I can say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall [I] go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). This is a blessing, even on the days it feels like a burden. Singleness, in this season, is how I get more of Jesus. When I ignore this and try to make other people my family in a way that they are not, I miss out on God’s good gift of singleness to me.

Being single doesn’t mean being friendless, and I’m not advocating that singles give up and become hermits. Be part of the church family. Roll up your sleeves and labor alongside them for the sake of the gospel. Love widely. As long as it is your assignment, be single, and be single well.

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Of manna and singleness and the unplanned life

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I will turn 33 in a few months. I was not planning on being single at this ripe old age. I had zero expectation that I’d be making decisions on my own about car repairs, work, or where to live. And yet these are my days. Listening to the mechanic explain valves and check engine lights and a bill that makes me wish I had someone to run it by before agreeing to the repairs. Coming to terms with the truth that my career needs the attention that I had planned on giving to children. Scouring listings for rentals to share with roommates, not houses to buy with a husband.

None of these scenarios are bad, or unusual, or even frightening. I just was not prepared for them. It’s like being hired to bake cookies, only to show up on the first day and find out you’re here to make cakes instead. Tasty still, and you’re not about to quit now, but you’ve never made a cake from scratch before. You have all the ingredients and proper tools, and a vague notion that you’ll need some more eggs … but now what?

That’s where I’m at, friends. Most of my prayers these days are along the lines of, what is this life? How does it work? What do I do with it?

In Exodus 16, the Israelites have been in the wilderness for a couple of months. They’ve seen their God send locusts and hail and boils and darkness and death upon Egypt. With their own feet they trod the earth that only moments ago had been seabed. The message has been received: God is great and not to be trifled with.

But. But they are hungry. But they were promised milk and honey. But freedom wasn’t supposed to look like this, feel like this.

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16: 2-3)

God, because he is a good, good, Father, knows their hunger and instead of sending them to their rooms for whining, gives them food to fill their bellies. Manna in the morning and quail in the evening. Bread for breakfast and meat for dinner. They have no quarrel with the quail, but are utterly befuddled by the other.

In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning dew lay around the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. (Exodus 16:13-15a)

Isn’t that how it always goes? Just like the Israelites, we are hungry, and our Dad gives us food we don’t recognize. We were expecting marriage, and got singleness. We planned for a house in the suburbs and got an apartment in the city. We thought we’d have children — plural — and have one — singular. We prepared for snow and got spring. We hope for honor and are humbled instead. What God gives us instead isn’t bad, or less than, what we expected. But it is unexpected, and we sometimes buy the lie that it is not enough, that it is not good, that He is holding out on us.

But the thing is, whatever we have, whatever’s in front of us — that’s His provision, and it is enough.

And Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.’” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. (Exodus 16:15b-18)

I love this. I love it and I fear it. I love that no matter what God gives, it is enough. He never gives us too little or leaves us wanting. When it feels like we have a lack, it is only there to drive us to His presence, where there is fullness of joy.

I fear it — the same way I fear a thunderstorm, safe in my home but dumbstruck by its power raging outside — because God never gives us more than what we need, which means that He will sometimes not give us what we want, so long as what we want is not ultimately Him. It is bloody, dying-to-self business to trust that the freedom and uncertainty of the manna is better than the slavery and certainty of meat pots.

And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning.” But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted. (Exodus 16:19-21)

The people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land. They ate the manna till they came to the border of the land of Canaan. (Exodus 16:35)

And yet this is not really a story about manna, is it, but the God who gives it. Not the gift, but the Giver. Because every time God’s people tried to take matters into their own hands and save some manna for the next day, it would rot and stink and be unfit for consumption. The manna only satiated their hunger for the day, so they would learn to depend on the God whose mercies are new every morning. They ate because He provided faithfully for 40 years, not because they were clever enough to find their own food.

Isn’t that the gospel? We can’t get the best life on our own. All our attempts at hoarding it only leave us with wormy, stinky bread. We get what God gives us because He knows best, because He loves best. Like that time the Jews were looking for a Messiah to overthrow the Roman empire, and instead, the whole world got a Savior. So whatever we have today is enough, because it came from our Father who loves us. These little lives of ours that we didn’t plan for are no lack after all, because in Jesus, we have everything. Everything.

What is it? It is enough, because He is enough. 

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The highest calling

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From time to time, I’ll hear (er, read) someone, usually another lady blogger/writer/conference speaker, say something to the effect of:

A woman’s highest calling is to be a wife and mom.

Let me set the record straight: No, it is not. 

A woman’s most noble calling does not lie in being married or being Mommy. Those are sanctifying states to be sure — how can they not be? It’s you, a sinner, sharing a bed, or a table, or your food, or your DNA, with another sinner and/or tiny sinners. You do not suffer a lack of opportunities to die to self. Marriage and motherhood are sanctifying, and they may be part of your calling, but they are not the calling.

I’m not trying to make a case that being single is the highest calling. Yes, Jesus and Paul were single, but nowhere is singleness held up as being holier than marriage (all Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7 is that the single Christian has more freedom to serve. It is not a higher calling, just a more flexible one.).

The highest calling for anyone is to love God and love others. 

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

The two greatest commandments are not: Fall in love and get married. They are not: Be fruitful and multiply.
They are: Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Is there a higher calling than this, to plumb the depths of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God? To be known by him? To give this joy feet by loving whoever it is God gives you to love: your people at church, your friends from college, your spouse, the person you’re dating, the person you’re not dating, your next-door neighbors, your co-workers, your nieces, your children.
Our God is more than our marriages, more than our singleness. Both are good, both are gifts from God, both are designed by him for our good and his glory. But they themselves are not our highest calling … He is.
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When God Fills the Silence: Zechariah’s Story

Luke 1 has been my go-to for Advent reading for a second year in a row. Last year, “the tender mercy of our God” was what fueled my joy. This year, I’ve been over the Magnificat several times as my sweet Catholic neighbor and I discuss our differing views of Mary. My neighbor sees “all generations shall call me blessed” as proof of Mary’s veneration. Meanwhile, I’m struck by “He who is mighty” as I tell her that Mary’s song of praise is less about herself and more about her God. Around and around we go, explaining and defending and sharing and asking.

After all of our talking, talking, talking, when it’s just me, Luke, and the lights on my Christmas tree, it’s Zechariah’s silence that quiets my heart. You remember Zechariah. Priest. Husband of Elizabeth. Father of John the Baptist. He was serving in the temple when Gabriel appeared and made an amazing proclamation — that Elizabeth will bear a son, even though she is barren, and Zechariah and his wife are advanced in age.

With such weighty words to ponder, Zechariah’s response is exactly what I think mine would be: stunned disbelief. For demanding a sign, he is struck silent on the spot, and remains so for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

And I wonder, as I always wonder, why would God do that? Why is Zechariah being punished for not believing? Can You really fault the guy, God, for being taken off guard by a heavenly messenger and what seemed like an impossible promise? Can You not give him a minute to let it all sink in?

Then I realize with a jolt — He did. God did for Zechariah what He has done for me: gave him time to think.

I know this because without my hearing aids, I can’t hear either.

Does that surprise you? It surprised me! Zechariah’s deafness is not explicitly stated, but why else would his neighbors “make signs” to him (v. 62)? If he could hear, they would have just used their mouths to ask. And why would the angel say he would be silent and unable to speak? Because as long as you can understand what people are saying, you can participate, even without the use of your vocal cords. As long as you can hear, you won’t be silent.

So it stands to reason that for nine whole months, Zechariah can’t hear, can’t speak, can’t celebrate the news with his friends, can’t acquaint his son growing in his wife’s belly with the sound of his voice, can’t whisper words of joy to Elizabeth as they marvel at their pending parenthood.

Why does God make Zechariah deaf? I don’t know Zechariah’s heart, but I know mine — I know ours. We are a forgetful people, and I think God does the things He does so we won’t forget. If Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah, left out the bit about being silent, and then sent him on his way back to Elizabeth, it would have been easy for Zechariah to forget. To chalk this otherworldly visit up to a dream, or a figment of his imagination. To pretend it had never happened.

But because Zechariah’s ears and mouth were closed, every time he tried to talk, or every time he witnessed the laughter of a crowd around him and his heart broke at being left out, he would have to remember why. He’d have to bring to mind Gabriel and his strange announcement. Zechariah would have to remember it was the Lord who opened Elizabeth’s womb, not merely luck or timing that brought him and his wife a long-awaited child.

Perhaps most importantly, he was shrouded in silence to know who God is. “Because you did not believe my words” is a stern rebuke, because our God is not one to be trifled with, but it is also a loving discipline — because this is a hard saying, and much to take in and marvel at, because I love you, I will give you time to understand. It will not feel like a gift, but it will give birth to joy. 

Nine months. Nine months God gave Zechariah to help him believe. Nine months of loneliness, of feeling cut off from his own people, with nothing but his thoughts and his God to keep him company. Nine months of unfettered communion with the Lord, of reflecting on the covenant, on all God had done and promised to do for His people, for generations upon generations. Nine whole months for joy to grow and unbelief to be purged. God filled Zechariah’s silence with something better than sound or speech — He filled it with His own presence.

When the time finally comes to speak, the joy of Zechariah’s heart is not that his tongue is loosed, or that his hearing has come flooding back, but that His God, His Rescuer, His Redeemer is on His way. Nine months’ worth of questions and opinions and doubts and statements could have come tumbling out in that moment, but like Mary, all Zechariah can do is break into song.

At the end of his silence, at the end of his waiting and his longing — at the end of ours — is the good news of great joy that Jesus is coming soon.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And that, Charlie Brown, is what Advent is all about.

Merry Christmas, friends. You are so loved!

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The Knitting of Souls

The good kind of lonely

When I asked the Lord to prepare my heart for this season of Advent, I expected to feel joy and a sweet longing for His return. There’s been that in small doses, but the overwhelming sense (gift?) has been one of loneliness, the kind that goes beyond wishing for a fuller social calendar. I am craving intimacy, the knitting together of souls, knowing and being known. Perhaps this is not a cheerful thought for Advent. But then, this is a season of waiting, of longing, of quiet, of anticipation. Maybe lonely is exactly the right word. And maybe that’s a good thing.

In their book, “Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships,” Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend unpack the novel idea that maybe loneliness is not an altogether bad thing.

Loneliness is not the enemy here, however. When we are lonely, it is a signal that we are alive. God created us with the drive to connect and be attached to himself and others. It is a good thing, because loneliness ultimately leads us to relationship, and that is where God wants all of us. We are all members of one body (Ephesians 4:25). Relationship cures loneliness. (p. 165)

Romantic relationships aren’t the only place to make this kind of connection. In a recent blog post, Scott Sauls identifies not just marriage but also friendship as the iron that sharpens us to maturity:

For Christians, the point and trajectory of marriage and friendship is the everlasting union between Christ and the Church. Our goal whether single or married is to prepare ourselves, and also each other, for that union.

… why would we not welcome a significant other—be it a spouse or a friend or a small group or a mentor—to be a faithful partner for the healing of every part of us?

Yes, we need Jesus, but He’s also designed us to need each other and when we don’t have each other — when our souls are not knit together — we are not fully ourselves. The times in my life when I feel most “spiritual” and close to God have been when loneliness is at hand, and that can be a sweet and blessed thing. But that kind of loneliness also spurs me to examine what Scripture says about relationships. I’m convinced that when God adopted us, He brought us to Himself, but also into a Family. We belong to Him, and we belong to each other.

The Knitting of Souls

Whenever I’ve had conversations about loneliness with people, I often find that I’m not the only lonely one out there. We’re all sad and wishing for deeper connections, and we all agree we should do XYZ more often in order to stay connected … and then we don’t. We love complaining about the problem but not actually doing anything about it.

And here’s the rub. If we are going to wade into deeper waters with each other, if we are going to follow the beam of loneliness back to our need for God and each other, then we are going to have to do the hard and inconvenient things. We are not excused from each other or from the body of Christ because we are married, or single, or have a disability, or a full schedule, or a free Saturday.

So how do we practice this, the art of soul-knitting? I have some ideas. I am terrible at all of them! But they are worth working on.

1. Pray. And pray and pray. For opportunities to connect, for the right mindset, for a right understanding of marriage and friendship and small groups and mentoring. To be placed in the path of the right people, and vice-versa. For a heart that genuinely cares for others at least as much as it cares for itself. For open eyes to see it when God builds friendships. So often, I’m looking for a friendship to be a certain way that I can totally miss out on something new that God’s doing. And almost always, I have to pray for BRAVERY, because insecurity and the fear of rejection can be as real in friendship as it is in dating.

2. Go first. God has always been in the business of making the first move with us. He extended a hand in friendship long before we even knew who He was. So be a good imitator of your Dad, and go first. Don’t wait to be invited; make the first move yourself. Initiate the conversation. Invite someone (or a whole family) over for dinner or out for lunch. Ask someone how their day was but also ask how their heart is. That connection we’re craving can’t be filled with chatter about the weather. Whatever you do, do it first and make a safe space for the other person to respond.

3. Embrace the awkward. Maybe this is just me. I’m 50 Shades of Awkward. I blurt things out without thinking them through. I answer the question I understood, not the question that was actually asked. As a single lady, I’m still not sure what to do with myself when I’m socializing with a family. I’m great with babies, but I have no idea what to talk to a 5th-grader about. Sometimes I miss social cues and overstay my welcome. And I handle small talk about as gracefully as a cat in roller skates.

We all have our things.

We could choose to avoid socializing because we don’t want to make fools of ourselves, but this is what I am saying: Do the hard stuff. On the other side of awkward is that sense of belonging that we’re all craving. Don’t give up on a budding friendship or relationship because you’re afraid of your own weirdness or turned off by someone else’s. Be patient with yourself, show grace, and do the work. Power through the awkward. It’s worth it.

4. There is always something you can do. Most of my conversations about loneliness and connection often end on the same note: “It’s just that I’m so busy.” But something I preach to myself often is that there is too much one-anothering happening in Scripture for me to believe that it’s optional. If we’re not busy one-anothering, then maybe we’re too busy with the wrong things. Generally speaking, and barring grave illnesses or other extenuating circumstances, there is always something we can do.

For example, my schedule does not really sync up well with those of other women my age. Most of my peers are moms with young children. They might be free during the day, but I’m at work. I get off at 5, when they’re just gearing up for the night shift. And some friends live far away, which makes getting together harder. Are we doomed to never knowing each other? No! It just means we get creative. We go out to lunch or I join their family for Thanksgiving or I use a day off to drive an hour to spend an afternoon or they give up dinner with their spouse or family so we can take our time catching up. We email. We text. We make sacrifices. We embrace the inconvenience. Soul-knitting is just that important.

Real lifeOne way I’m trying my hand at this is by making my Sunday afternoons free. That’s historically been my time for laundry-groceries-napping, but I’ve been slowly shifting to doing laundry during the week, and meal planning on Friday or Saturday instead. I do this because I pray the Lord will fill my Sunday afternoons with community, that He’ll help me be hospitable and brave about inviting people over (or out) for lunch. I have a one-bedroom apartment and no table, so I can practice embracing the awkward. 🙂 But this is what I mean, that there is always something you can do. Maybe you can’t clear every Sunday afternoon for lunch, but you can be intentional with your schedule in other ways. Set aside one day a month to invite a new family over. Or host a game night every other month. Or pick three people to email this week.

There is always something you can do. Embrace the awkward. Go first. Pray. Our souls depend on it!

(And if you ever find yourself in Lawrence on a Sunday afternoon, come over. We can have takeout or leftovers or I can throw something together that looks weird but tastes delicious because my culinary skills are all over the map. We can eat on the couch like savages. It will be GREAT.)

Further reading: The Soul-Shattering Sting of Loneliness (Tony Reinke, via Desiring God)
I Need You to Call My Bluff, and Here’s Why (Scott Sauls)

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The God immortal has drawn near

Advent is the time we celebrate that God is with us. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel, we belt. O come, o come Emmanuel, we sing. God immortal has taken on human flesh for a rescue mission. It’s humbling. It’s astonishing.

But maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, God has always been in the business of drawing near.

Take the creation account, for instance. God Almighty could have just clapped His hands and boom, there it was. But He didn’t. What’s the first thing He makes? The Sunday School answer is light (Genesis 1:3). The light He calls Day, and the darkness, Night. So broadly speaking, the first thing He makes is time. God the Eternal descends to finish His creation within the framework of mornings and evenings, hours and minutes. Eternity steps into time.

Then He calls the seas, the plants, the whales and ladybugs, the dirt and mountains and currents into being. Only after He’s prepared a home does He plunge His hands into the dirt and fashion a man. He has come to us before there was an us.

He walked with Adam and Eve in the garden; He did not burden them with finding a way to Heaven. And even when they disobeyed and ran away in shame, their Father sought them out and clothed them and set a plan in motion to give His people a way back to Him.

Later on, when God gives Moses the Law, He does not make Moses ascend to Heaven to get it. God  gives Moses the home field advantage and meets him on Sinai. Exodus after the giving of the 10 Commandments is some pretty heady stuff. It’s all about the building of the tabernacle, what the priests should wear, how they should perform the rituals the Lord ordained. In chapter 29, there’s a long list of instructions for the consecration of the priests and for burnt offerings. We’re talking bulls and rams and unleavened bread and coats and sashes and garments. Words like wave offering and consecrate and ordination only underscore the solemnity and complexity of these instructions.

At the end of it, we find out what it’s all for:

It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God. (Exodus 29:42-46)

There I will meet with you. There I will dwell with you. All of that, so He can be with us. All of that, so we won’t be alone. God drawing near to us in Bethlehem wasn’t a one-time thing. It wasn’t a new idea. When God the Son arrives, He’s doing what He’s always done — going first. Drawing near. Just to be with His family. 
Let this thrill your soul. God races to meet us while we’re still a long way off. He’s the Bridegroom who prepares a home for His bride long before she says yes. He’s the Friend who reaches out first. We’re wanted, we’re loved, we’re pursued — and have been since, quite literally, the dawn of time. What wondrous love is this, o my soul?
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When Joy seems elusive

Roughly a year ago, I wrote about The Very Best Thing. Back then, the Gospel — that glorious truth that we’ve all rebelled against God but that He’s loved us, brought us home, and rescued us from hell and from ourselves — had come alive for me in a way I’d never experienced. Joy was everywhere and I was practically giddy as I considered how God had come near. Does everyone know about this?! I wondered. They should! It was better than anything I could dream up, which is saying a lot, considering what a hyperactive imagination I have!

Fast forward to December 2015 and I’m not feeling so rainbows-and-unicorns-y. No great tragedy has befallen me. No dramatic life changes have happened. I’m at the same job, in the same apartment, going to the same church. I’ve made a few friends. I’ve been on a few dates. I’ve laughed until I’ve cried and cried until all the Kleenex was gone and I had to move on to toilet paper because I KEEP IT CLASSY around here. All very Normal and Regular rhythms of life.

But I feel off. I don’t feel joy or giddy and I’m afraid. Have I lost hold of the Gospel already? I know its truth in my head but the rest of me seems apathetic. Bored, almost. I tell myself that maybe it’s just that the honeymoon is over, that now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, everyday, mundane part of being a Christian. Faith is not built on feelings, after all. Sometimes it is a plodding along.

And yet, that Joy. I am desperate for it, especially now, at Advent. For the wonder and the thrill of knowing God, the One who put the stars and Kansas sunsets in place and fashioned creatures like manatees and penguins and ants and us. I want to marvel that He would love me, to take to heart and be blown away by this Good News. The psalmist says to “Delight yourself in the Lord,” (Psalm 37:4) and I am frantic to do that. I pray in a panic. Scold myself for not reading my Bible more. List and confess all the wrongs I can think of. Contemplate how I can Give More or Do More or Be Better so I can get that Joy back.

Nothing works. I’m still listless.

And then it hits me: I can’t do anything. 

It hits me again: I can’t, and that is the Gospel. There is absolutely, literally nothing I can do to Be Good. I might be able to fake my way at being Halfway Decent for a short time at best, but when left to my own devices, I’ll revert to my Haughty and Proud and Entitled self. I’ll acknowledge with my mouth and my brain that Jesus’ blood is sufficient for all of my Not Goodness, but my heart and my actions will tell the true story: that I want to bring something to the table, too.

But I can’t. The Gospel says there’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation. There’s no act of righteousness we can perform to make God go, “Yes, this looks like a good one. Pretty holy. Donates money to the right organizations. Is polite to rude people. Has read the entire Old Testament, even Obadiah, very impressive. Prays for hours every week. I’ll take that one.” This is not like online dating. God doesn’t love and save us based on the good we’ve done, on criteria we’ve met, on a sparkling introductory paragraph, on the right selfies taken at juuuuuust the right angle.

He loves and saves us because … He loves and saves us. He doesn’t love us because we’re awesome. He loves us because He’s awesome. To paraphrase Sally Lloyd-Jones, we are lovely because He loves us.

It’s offensive, isn’t it? To be told that, essentially, what I think of as my good works and good deeds are not good enough and never will be. How dare someone tell me that what I do isn’t good enough? That strikes at the very core of who I am. People have spent thousands of dollars in therapy for lesser reasons. I had a pastor once who said that our deepest question is, “Am I enough?” The Gospel says “no,” and it’s devastating.

And so, so relieving. Because “no” is not the final answer. It’s, “No, but God …But God loves me. But God made a way. But God looks at Jesus’ Goodness and counts it as mine. How? By looking at my Badness and counting it as Christ’s and putting it and Him to death (But God does not let death have the final say!). I have absolutely nothing to bring to the table, But God has prepared the feast. I am not a good person, But God is merciful and loved me first. Because of Jesus — and only because of Him — I’m counted as Good. I didn’t even have to do anything! Like a good Husband and Provider, He has taken care of all of it. All of it.

I gasp now in wonder and think to myself, Here is joy. 

It’s offensive. It’s amazing. It’s the Gospel. It is Joy.

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Four sweet truths for the single heart

Dear heart of mine,

You’ve had a really weird month. Year, even. I know there are days you don’t mind being single, and days where you hate it. I know you know all the churchy answers to being single: that it’s good, that the grass is always greener, that Jesus is better. Sometimes they sound trite. I know this even as I try to tell them to you. So rather than scold you yet again for not being content enough or holy enough or whatever enough, let me peel back the layers and get to the, well, heart of the matter.

Here are four precious promises for your joy:

You are whole.
It’s true. You are a whole, entire person. You have a calling, and dreams, and skills, and favorite TV shows. Maybe you have a black thumb, can cook a mean steak, never answer texts or always default to reruns of Parks and Rec on a bad day. You have particular and besetting sins, and particular and wonderful gifts. You are hilarious and sometimes melancholy. You are a whole, entire person. And yet you are not whole because of anything you’ve done or anything you are, but because God has made you, He loves you, He has redeemed and will redeem you. If you’re single for the rest of your earthly years or if God calls you to marriage, you are whole — in Him, not in your spouse or imaginary boyfriend.

You are loved.
Oh my gosh, you are so loved. Someone died for you. Someone lives for you. Someone intercedes for you. Someone protects and perseveres you. Someone is for you more than you are for yourself, who is able to do immeasurably more than anything you could ask for or imagine. Your Bridegroom loves you. So much. Marriage won’t make you more loved than you already are right now, in this moment. Marriage might very well be another way the Lord puts His own mercy and love on display for you, but I bet if you ask Him for the eyes to see, He’ll lift the veil and show you all the ways He loves you and is for you now.

You have a family.
You may not have a biological family of your own, but you have been adopted by the Very Best Dad. He adopted you to Himself, and He adopted you into His family, too. Hear that? You have a family! God has set your lonely heart in His family. You belong, beloved. Quit worrying so much about whether this family is “single-friendly,” (although … hey, Church? Be a single-friendly Church. Don’t hold marriage so highly that there’s no room for anyone else.) and just be. Love them. Serve them. Ask God to give you eyes to see what He’s given you to do in this family, exactly as you are.

You are free. 
I’m not going to throw 1 Corinthians 7:28 at you. Well, not yet, anyway. First, I’m going to remind you that God has made you so free. Free from the power of sin. Free to delight in Jesus. Free to throw yourself into the sea with abandon when you see your risen Savior on the shore. This is true, married or single.

And yet, there is a little more freedom in being single. A little less … clutter. Fewer entanglements. We are all free, but Paul wants to see us not-yet-marrieds freer still. And yes, now I’m going to throw 1 Corinthians 7:28 at you:

But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.

I would spare you that, the apostle says.

You want to argue with him: Please, no, don’t.

But here is the thing. Your sin, it is overwhelming. You have your hands full with your own self before your God. Repent and pray for help and fight for joy and repent and pray and lather, rinse, repeat. And that’s just for one person! The idea of joining with another person — another whole person’s worth of quirks and sins and joys — is staggering at times. And what if together, you make even more persons, each with their own bundle of joy and sorrow? Whoo, boy. It is no trifling thing, this marriage-and-family business.

So maybe the apostle, who speaks with a father’s heart, is on to something. We who are not married are not limited by our circumstances; we are free — to issue last-minute invitations, to listen and to linger, to give generously of our time, to swim and soak and wash ourselves in the Word. Even if we knew for sure that marriage was coming, why wouldn’t we live with abandon now? Why wouldn’t we forge friendships and run wild and root ourselves in the Word and learn how to be faithful where we are? Those are lessons we need always; we might as well give ourselves a head start on them now.

So stand firm, my sometimes bruised and bewildered and doubting heart, and know that “… all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 Corinthians 1:20)

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It Is Not True: Some Feelings on the CI Videos

A few of my Facebook friends have been posting those videos of people getting their cochlear implants activated. The people in the videos respond with shock and happy tears, mostly, and from what I can tell on Facebook, the videos are meant to be uplifting.

As always, I HAVE SOME THOUGHTS on this.

Let me start by saying that I’m always, always glad to see hearing loss, cochlear implants (CIs), hearing aids (HAs), etc., become a more comfortable topic to discuss publicly. I’m happy that people who are not deaf or hard of hearing are thinking about hearing loss and sharing stories related to it on their own walls. I sometimes get weary of educating people about hearing loss, so anytime anyone else wants to step in and help, I am all for it! 😉

However — and this is a strong however — I want to set a few things straight.

1) CI activation is just the beginning. I don’t have a CI myself, but I have several friends who do. I have never heard of any of them leaving their activation appointment with perfectly adjusted hearing. It can take months or even years to acclimate to the new sounds, and takes a lot of work to get used to. It can be frustrating, annoying and even scary. There aren’t happy tears during those times. It’s an emotional experience for sure, but it isn’t all happy-happy-joy-joy like the video depicts.

2) Getting a CI does not “cure” someone of their hearing loss. What you see on the videos is not someone becoming hearing for the first time in their life. They are not hearing. They will always be considered deaf or hard of hearing, or however they choose to identify themselves. I know many people with CIs who still need to turn the captions on the TV, still use sign language, still request a sign language interpreter or live captioning at school or work, still need you to face them when you talk so they can lipread, and so on. A CI can definitely be a great help, but it is not a “cure.”

3) Why is this kind of video so popular? I am scared to death that it’s because it sends a message along the lines of: “Oh, good, they can hear, so they’ll be happy now. They’ll be normal now. Everything will be easier now.” If that’s the message it sends, if that’s the kind of thing that my hearing friends are thinking or feeling (however subconsciously) when they watch the video, then I cannot stress this enough: It Is Not True. 

It Is Not True because as I outlined in a crazy long blog post a few months ago, hearing loss itself is not the problem. Being D/deaf or hard of hearing is not the problem. Not being able to hear sounds without the help of CIs or HAs is not the problem. The real problem is that it divides, and makes those of us with hearing loss the Other. People are always trying to “cure” us, to make us more like them, to make our disability easier on them. My D/deaf and hard of hearing friends and I could fill a library with stories of how people have wanted to “fix” us — my favorites are the church people who have tried to “pray the deaf away.” TRUE STORY, and ALL THE SIDE EYE.

We don’t need more uplifting videos of people’s CIs being activated. What we need are more friends who know and love us for who we are, and who are willing to put their discomfort aside, look at us when they talk, ask what they can do to make group conversations easier, find ways to fold us in the group. We are people just like you. We are smart and funny and warm and loving and have so much to contribute, not because of our hearing loss or in spite of it, but just because of who we are. If you’re waiting for us to be “cured” before we can be part of the conversation, then (I say this with love) you’re the ones missing out, not us.

4) I’m going to go churchy on you now. I’m worried the video perpetuates the myth of, “If I only I had ______, then I’d really be happy.” Christians, anytime and anywhere and any way that message is delivered, what do we do? Preach the gospel. Preach the gospel. Preach the gospel. We know and need to proclaim that It Is Not True because being able to hear — or, for that matter, being able to see or walk or speak —is not anyone’s ultimate joy. I could get a CI and perhaps improve my speech comprehension and have an easier time keeping up in a group conversation, or be able to talk to someone without having to look at them all the time. And maybe I would be excited and happy for a while, but you know what? I would still be a great sinner in need of a great Savior. CIs might appear to mask hearing loss, but they can’t erase a soul’s brokenness. Only Jesus can do that. Let’s make THAT go viral.

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