In the Wilderness

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD: make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Call me dumb, but I have never before today noticed the placement of the colon in that oh so familiar scripture. It’s amazing that with a change of inflection, a verse you think you understand takes on a whole different nuance.

I used to think the first few words were simply setting the scene for John the Baptist who hung out in wild places and that’s all there was to it – the description of a scene for the more important announcement that was made next. While it still does set the scene for that announcement, this morning it set the scene for my heart.  What I see today is that while you are in the wilderness, prepare the way for the LORD.

The wilderness is often what we refer to when we are in a hard season where there doesn’t seem to be much growth or movement. It doesn’t feel like we are flourishing and rather we feel in want. Thirsty for something refreshing to take away the drought or worse yet the pain. The wilderness often has a vast landscape and we most likely don’t know when we will reach the end of it. That place where we can see the waters flowing and the promises of God before us. John the Baptist is proclaiming something else. He is saying, though you are in the wilderness, you can be in it with expectation. Expect growth and know that your wandering and panting is laying down the pathway for God to take you to where He is leading. Expect great things.

I wake up two times a night now with my mom to reposition her for comfort and care. I’m already tired and it hasn’t been that long. I feel like I’ve just stepped into a new wilderness and refreshment and flourishing needs to be carefully thought through and stewarded lest I thirst to the point of despair. I’m in need of endurance because I don’t know how long this road will be. One thing I know for sure – God is here with me. He is showing up in the blooming of friendships just started. In the kindling surrounding our family where I am hoping will set a fire in the hearts of my boys. They are watching and participating and although I resisted this being part of their story, it is what it is and God doesn’t waste a thing. He is writing something new with them and He is writing what may or may not be a long ending to the story for my mom and I. Regardless of how it plays out, I know I need Him. I long for Him and I won’t travel this journey well without Him.

Where are you? That’s the question God asked Adam in the Garden where there was nothing but flourishing for a long while. The question is a good one to ask at the first of a year because it helps us determine where our hearts are and how we are seeing God and hearing His voice.

Where are you? I hope and pray where ever you are, you know He is near.

Fear is a Liar

Sometimes we need to hear this as though God Himself is squaring up, shoulder to shoulder, looking us in the eye because we tend to believe the lie more than the truth.

Fear not. Do not fear. Don’t be afraid.

Listen to it in every scripture that God breathes these words into and you won’t necessarily hear the gentle, coddling voice that you think you need to hear when you are operating out of this broken, vulnerable and fragile place: afraid.

What you need to hear is truth. That the fear you are operating in is holding you back. It’s keeping you from loving those around you with your whole heart. It’s keeping you from trusting God and loving HIM with your heart, soul, mind and strength. It’s causing you to lean on your own understanding (which happens to be quite limited) instead of trusting the Lord with all your heart.

He wants all your heart.

Trust the Lord with all your heart… (Proverbs 3:5)

Love the Lord with all your heart… (Luke 10:27)

Is your heart giving way to fear or to faith today?

Isaiah 43:1: “But now, this is what the LORD says — he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” 

Listen to the lie of fear and you will hang on to your past. You will not believe you have been called by name for a purpose. You will forget that you already belong to Jesus.

Fear is a liar. Slay it with the truth.

What other truth do you need to remind yourself of today?

My Immigration Story

I have vivid memories of being 4 years old, in my house in Tehran waiting for my dad to come home from getting groceries. I stood at the door and saw him running down the street, avoiding intensifying riots right there in our neighborhood. The decision was made for my mom and me to leave the heart of it and go stay with my grandparents in London for two weeks.

Meanwhile, my mom began experiencing leg pains, numbness and an occasional loss of balance. Shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

Two weeks were extended to two years as it was decided we would not go back. At some point during those two years, my dad joined us after getting on the last flight before the borders in Iran were closed to anyone, incoming or outgoing. Meanwhile, hostages were in the midst of their 444 days locked in the American Embassy in Iran.

My aunt, who lived in California suggested we come to Los Angeles, to get my mom away from the cold, damp London air that exacerbated her symptoms. The U.S. immigration policy at the time allowed her to help us get green cards. We were “vetted” – whatever that process was at the time. We did our due diligence and were welcomed through the borders of Los Angeles International Airport. My dad got a job, I went to school and my mom was able to begin receiving care from a neurologist and eventually through government aid for all the medical assistance she required. I lost my British accent and began to blend into my environment.

Several years after I was welcomed to the US, I was awakened to the welcoming community of Christ. He who began to reveal Himself to me as He did to my mother and her siblings in an American missionary school in Tehran, became a full indwelling part of my life. Once again, I was welcomed in.

Now, I live in a paradoxical space of being naturalized, born again and still afraid. That same spirit that wrecked the country  I fled as a little girl, continues to wreak havoc on the same region and haunts the waters between us. The same spirit of terror lures unsuspecting young people with a God-given desire to belong.  Some raised here like me, and some even born here inside our borders to martyr themselves to their cause, drive planes into buildings and shoot innocent people at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. The same spirit of terror that strikes fear in me when I wonder, what will happen next?

Today I went to the grocery store and a woman walked in at the same time with her head covered. I smiled and said, I’m glad you’re here. She said thank you, God bless you.

He already has.

Engaging in God’s Word

I have scripture in various places around my house. A printed canvas in my living room reminds me of new mercies every morning. I wake up to Jeremiah 17:7-8 next to my bed. A sweet gift from a friend meant to carry me through a difficult season. There is a hand written note card from my spiritual mom in my bathroom reminding me who I am in Christ. Some of my favorite books are on my mantle. These are ones that have helped to produce some sort of transformation and stirred up my affection for God, increasing my scope of who He is.

While it’s trendy to decorate with word art right now, that’s not why I do it. Mostly, it’s because my mind has a tendency to go to dark and unhealthy places. Sometimes I get so caught up in my worries, I can’t think clearly about what is actually happening right now and it robs my joy. There are mornings I wake up restless because I’m thinking about what may or may not lie ahead whether it’s today or five years from now. Most of the time, I am worried about what I cannot control.

When I started leading women’s ministry, we would have Bible studies and gatherings leaving room for conversations on how we would actually apply the things we’ve learned to our lives. We would share our struggles. Some of us would confess our hesitancy to trust God. Some would speak openly about broken marriages devastated by addiction. Some would open up about the pain of abuse and old destructive messages playing in our heads from childhood that affected the way we lived. Then often in these settings, there would inevitably be another woman who would say something to the effect of, “You should just read your Bible and pray more.”

I would get so irritated at the motive or lack of motivation behind that piece of usually unsolicited advice. It often felt trite to me, as if what was really being said was, “this is too messy and I don’t want to deal with it, so let’s put a pretty bow on it and end this conversation.” I felt protective over the person with the struggle because what was meant to be encouragement felt like shame. Shame that she wasn’t doing enough, being enough or doing enough of the right thing. People seemed more interested in the happy and victorious outcomes but not willing to get into the uncomfortable, sometimes disorienting and challenging battle to get to the victory.

A few years have passed and in every area of my life, it seems God is calling me to a deeper and much more simple place. I have come to a place where I realize what I really need is…wait for it… to read my Bible and pray more often. Not in that trite, defeatist way. In fact, I would even say, it’s not even about reading my bible and praying more, often but rather engaging with God’s word and being with him. I’m not even talking about having a “quiet time” in the morning, which of course is good. What I’m learning is what actually transforms is not only reading scripture but allowing scripture to read me. To listen to it and allow the words to penetrate my very being. Going slowly and understanding the words are the actual utterances of God through man and His desire is to speak to me, give me a mind like His and help me with all my troubles.

Recently,  I wrote Philippians 4:8 on a chalkboard and I asked one of the boys if he knew what it meant.

I’ve had this verse memorized for many years. But when I asked the question, I couldn’t even really answer it myself when it came to explaining to a child the differences between all those words… true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellence. They all have shared meanings, but God doesn’t waste a word so why would he use all those words?

They are all similar and yet slightly nuanced:

True – Genuine

Noble – Worthy of respect

Right – Righteous and upright

Pure – Innocent (free of guilt)

Lovely – pleasing

Admirable – worthy of praise

Excellent – goodness, virtue (moral excellence)

Praiseworthy – worthy of a commendation for a job well done

If I’m going to simply read this passage, it will make me feel good for a while. It will serve as a great reminder to think good thoughts. But if I actually engage with it and read it in its full context and think about the words, the author, where he was coming from and the purpose of it, I’m further engaged.

Paul wrote this letter while chained to a wall in a Roman prison. Chained to a wall, people. So when he says things like “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” A sentence like “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” And get ready for this (remember – chained to a wall) “And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Guard your heart AND your mind. Paul was interested in the mind of the believer and probably understood better than anyone what anxiety can do to a person. Though he is a man marked by boldness and courage, his success as a Pharisee most likely came from a place of great pressure to fill the shoes of his family line. To step away from all of that to follow Christ and then have a bounty on your head multiple times, repeated stints in prisons, shipwrecks, beatings and sharp disagreements with dear friends are among a few things that can really mess with your head.

If I take into account the fact that he writes multiple times about anxiety, renewing your mind and guarding your mind I can engage with Philippians 4:8 in a different way and understand God knows I am prone to have wandering thoughts that lead me to empty places but in these verses is giving me clear guidance on how to battle. He doesn’t just say “don’t be anxious,” “rejoice and be thankful” he actually understands it’s NOT easy and trite and there are things we can proactively do to think well and cultivate a heart of gratitude and sense his peaceful presence among us.

The definition of the word engage is to occupy the attention or efforts of a person or persons. In a way, those women who used to make me angry were right. Who am I to judge their intentions? I was probably wrong about those as well. When I am engaged in the word of God, I am less quick to judge, more prone to patience and compassion and I begin to see things more clearly. God is not just about the victorious outcome, he is all in through the process and has not left us without words to live through it.

Praise be to God.

I have scripture strategically placed around my house because I need the reminder to occupy my attention and efforts with Him.

Otherwise, I forget.

The Table and Why We Gather

My friend Tim is a creative genius who writes, builds, makes good music and other stuff telling the story of God. When he was single, he spent many nights around our dinner table. The table we had at the time was an old traditional looking piece the previous homeowner left for us when we moved in. One night, after some good food and conversation, Tim declared he actually hated our table. The next day, he showed up with a stunning handcrafted table made out of reclaimed wood he had in his garage. It was indeed a labor of love I will never forget.

Several years later, that table wore out and another good friend, another mom of boys who knew we love to have people around our table,  gifted us their table. In the words of my five-year-old, it’s a “ginormous” white farm table that comfortably seats ten.

Some of my favorite moments around tables have been in my home with friends, talking about Jesus. What we think of Him, what He is teaching us in His word and how He is shaping us. For a couple of years, a group of sweet women would show up at my house on Monday mornings and together we studied and wrestled through the Proverbs, the Sermon on the Mount and other places in Scripture that widened our view of God and what we think about Him.

I’m currently going through Beth Moore’s Entrusted, a Bible Study on 2 Timothy. At the end of the first week, her daughter Melissa writes about the value of intellectual community as we study the Bible, discuss theology and “join a collective struggle for truthful speech.”

She quotes Benjamin Myers:

“Theology… is not a private table for one but a rowdy banquet of those who gather, famished and thirsty, around Christ.”

Elsewhere she quotes from author Shauna Niequist:

“We don’t’ come to the table to fight or to defend. We don’t come to prove or to conquer, to draw lines in the sand or to stir up trouble. We come to the table because our hunger brings us there. We come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. The table is the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for. The table is the place where the doing stops, the trying stops, the masks are removed and we allow ourselves to be nourished, like children. We allow someone else to meet our need. In a world that prides people on not having needs, ongoing longer and faster, on going without, on power through, the table is a place of safety and rest and humanity, where we are allowed to be as fragile as we feel. If the home is a body, the table is the heart, the beating center, the sustainer of life and health.”

We live in a time where we have more access to information and resources than we ever have before. And yet, our literacy of the Bible is dipping and our value of its truth and relevancy is largely debated. Many churches are trying to figure out how to disciple their people, how to remain relevant, and how to draw people in. There are varying opinions about whether or not we should have men’s ministries, women’s ministries, groups, and programs. Many people have given up going to church or come reluctantly. Their walls are up because they have been hurt by their past experiences with leaders and church people.

Think through the above quote. How can this simple, age-old tradition of being together around a table be rekindled in our purposes for gathering in Spiritual settings no matter how we go about them?

People come to a table expecting a feast. Give them Jesus. 

They come prepared for a conversation. Let us create safe spaces where it’s okay to voice doubts, cynicism, and fears along with hopes, dreams, and experiences of the goodness of God.

There is power at our tables to bring nourishment, comfort, stimulating conversation and the ability to build relationships.

In order to revive the beauty of a table, we serve without expectation. Invite people to lean in and feast. Create meals that are unforgettable and cause them to accept subsequent invitations. Leave them with a nourishing and satisfying taste.

Too often people come to the table feeling like they have to leave their masks on. Or they can’t say what they really think because it might be wrong or offensive. Manners, behaviors, and traditional thoughts trump authenticity. What if we who host and lead, created spaces where all those anxieties could be left at the door. Gathering spaces that are not only sacred but also safe and fully welcoming. 

Safe and welcoming enough to receive you the way you are but not leave you there.

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