Sunday, December 30, 2012

Because Sometimes I Make God Too Small

This morning started out like most others.  I woke up, took a peek at emails that came in on my phone, scrolled through messages.  One was from my friend Miroslava in Ukraine.  She works at Sunshine Center, and she's one of the staff members who stays in contact with me about the Christmas gifts being sent to the orphans.

She told me of a little girl, ten years old, who just moved into the center.  Miroslava asked if we could find people to send gifts to her for Christmas.

Sometimes I think I'm finished with something when God isn't done yet.  

We spent several weeks set up in the church lobby, photos and handouts and greeting people who want to bless kids with gifts and reach into the hurting places of fatherlessness with the love of Jesus as a gift to the King whose life is a gift of eternity to us.

I checked off names and gifts being sent and gifts having arrived, and I really felt my "work" was mostly done.  Looking ahead with anticipation to the sweet photos we get each year, I tucked my clipboard of Sunshine Christmas notes aside my computer and felt accomplished.

But God wasn't done.  

A new boy came to Sunshine a few weeks ago, and we scurried to share his handsome face and his favorite colors and what size warm clothes he could use, and some loving friends stepped up to once again give.

And today, I read Miroslava's email, and despite all the time I've spent watching God love the orphan and make impossible things possible for His glory, my first response was, "Oh dear, how will we find people again?  I don't really know how we'll find gifts for this little girl.  Everyone has done so much, and the gifts should be sent so soon, and everyone is so busy..."

I made God too small.  

I have watched God provide thousands of dollars for a trip my husband and I made to Ukraine, to spend time having fellowship with the orphan we call "son" in our hearts.  I've watched God provide tens of thousands for friends to adopt.  I've watched God bring a family of kids from Sunshine to live only 3 houses away from me as refugees, and they and their mom and other siblings have become family to us.   

And I still, after all this, am guilty of waking up in the morning and making God too small.  

But our God is not small.  
He is mighty. 
He is good. 
And so big.

I posted Alina's photo and the message from my friend on Facebook, and I went to church.
After church, I had messages waiting from 3 friends who want to send gifts right out to Alina.

When I make a box for God to fit into, 

His grace and faithfulness always press against the edges

until all the limitations I place on Him 

have been torn 


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Letter to My Teenage Self

Dear teenage Shannon,
Yes, the Pulsar is the coolest of all possible first-cars, although when you're riding around with the t-tops off, I hate to break it to you, but you do not look like Mary J Blige.  Even in the hoodie dress and sunglasses.  Take a pic of the Pulsar, though, because in 15 years, no one on the earth will remember this car model having ever existed.  So take those T-tops off, velcro the CD player to the dash, and rock on, girl.  These days are good.  In 20 years, you will still text (it's a thing you'll understand later) Gina every time "California Love" comes on the radio.

You have stumbled upon one of the great truths of life at an early age: a perfect eyeliner application can always improve your mood.  We really should talk about that hair, though.  I know, I know: it was the 90's.

Something you should know: Mom and Dad are actual people.  Hard to understand at this age, I realize.  But they have feelings and struggles and hearts and hurts, and you need to be a little sensitive to that, ok?  One day you'll be a mom, and you'll understand how hard it is to be a mere mortal charged with the heavenly task of raising children. Even when parents fall, they still are heroes.  Mom and Dad are not necessarily perfect human beings (don't worry - they already know this), but they ARE amazing and selfless parents (you may want to let them know this sometimes - they can be hard on themselves, I think).  They can still perch on those pedestals, even though they are real.  Your parents are truly amazing people.  You'll be sentimental about them forever.

Boys are really not worth the trouble.  If you could not be bothered with them until you're about 25, that would be great.  Focus on your girlfriends.  They are the best!  There's nothing better than laughing until you have tears in your eyes over a million inside jokes that will never be funny to anyone else.  Enjoy all your friends.

God has a good man for you.  You'll meet him.  He will take care of you and your kids, he'll even take care of other kids, because he's really amazing.  You'll be crazy about him.  Besides being totally handsome, he's also brilliant.  You don't know now that such a good man will love you one day, but that's because you're young and silly and really should put all thoughts of dating and boys on the back burner until you are older and smarter.  There really is a man with a beautiful heart and who is strong and worthy of respect and who will chase after your dreams all over the world with you.  God made him for you.  Years will pass, and you will never stop being in awe of this man you have.

Be sure you get all your favorite childhood recipes.  You'll love to cook these meals for your kids one day.  And don't be annoyed that Mom makes you cook once in a while.  You'll be a decent homemaker one day.  (Which - are you sitting? - will become your dream job.)

You are actually not an idiot on computers. One day there will be something called the internet, and there will be so many cool ways to stay in touch with people (we call it "online" in the future, ok?) that you will push through your great aversion to technology because you are totally a people person.

Don't be afraid to look stupid.  Don't worry about going to something you want to attend just because no one you know yet is going (you'll remind yourself of this for the next 20-something years), because there are probably new friends waiting for you there.

You'll never be tan.  You're Irish.  If you are smart, you'll stay out of tanning beds and really not go overboard on the spray tan.  Just rock the sunscreen and the Celtic complexion with pride (and maybe a little spray tan).  One day you'll have a daughter who's biracial and you'll want her to be proud of the color God made her (although you will be jealous of her year-round mocha skin).

Get to know your grandmother.  She's super-amazing.  Try to learn everything you can from her.  She knows a bunch of cool things.  She can sew.  She can cook.  She can do the jitterbug.  She knows as much about how to live with joy and vitality as anyone, possibly in the history of the world.  Your kids will love her.  But they will be annoyed with hearing you say each time you drive by her old house that you hope to buy it someday.  (You'll say it anyway...)

The smell of fresh soil and cucumbers will always make you think of Bampa.  You'll never forget him. You'll tell Mom often how much he would have liked your husband.  Sometimes you'll say "Oh boy" to your kids, and you'll stop and think, "Oh my word!  That sounded just like Bampa."

Mom will actually be your best buddy one day.  I know she cramps your style now, but it's only because she's trying to keep you alive to adulthood, so you two can shoot the breeze and enjoy lunches out and talk for hours on the phone.  You'll realize soon that she is probably the most intelligent woman on earth. Honestly. You think you want to live in a big city now, but when you're older, you will live in the same small town as Mom and will think it's the only possible thing to do.  You won't be able to imagine living too far to pop in and visit. She's really quite a lot of fun.  She puts up with a lot from you.  Be sure you thank her profusely at least once later on.

Dad will always make you feel like a little girl inside, like his princess.  He'll always be larger than life.  In 20 years, he will still stand at the end of the driveway and hold up "I love you" fingers when you drive away.  And every time you'll cry.  (Your husband will understand completely after you two have a baby girl.  He'll stand by the sonographer when she tells you that your baby is a girl, and his first words will be, "I'm ruined," and he'll smile.)  Save money when you're still in your 20's to go to Ireland with Dad.  It won't be easy years later, with lots of kids, and you'll regret not going.  He'll never stop calling you "Pooks."  You'll actually catch fish with him as an adult.  I know, you can't imagine either of you doing something so unrefined, but you will be hysterical laughing, dragging a bass through the lake alongside a paddleboat a week after he has a stroke, and you'll thank God for small moments that really are full of treasures.  You will wear a fishing hat.  I know... "Say whaaaat?!"  You'll be cute in it, though.  Don't worry.

There's a reason why they offer classes at 8am in college, as well as at later times.  For the love of all things good, don't sign up for the 8:00 class!

There really will be a day when you don't aspire to own a Mercedes.  It's the truth!  You will -- wait for it...! -- happily drive a minivan one day.  Not forever, just for a couple years, until you don't need to tote pack-n-plays and strollers with you. God will mess with your mind, and you will start to want to put your money into all sorts of crazy things like "other people" and "missions" and "caring for orphans and widows."

Other dreams will change, too.  That fashion designer version of your future?  Not so much.  You will actually dream of being a housewife and having lots of kids from all over the place.  And you'll want to live in an old Maine farmhouse.  Your wonderful husband will humor you, but he will always draw the line at buying you a goat.  He's probably exercising wisdom.

Finally, you are beautiful and precious and loved and valuable.  Please don't take unnecessary risks.  Please don't ever forget that you are the workmanship of a loving God who has good plans for you.  When things in life hurt you, don't build up walls.  Don't self-destruct.  The pain will still be there.  You can't numb it by being stupid.  The only thing you can ever really do is take it to the Cross and let Jesus carry it for you.  You'll figure that out one day.  You'll grow up and have a wonderful life and enjoy your parents and have amazing kids and a handsome husband.  All the hard stuff now is temporary.  The good stuff is what to cling to.  The future is one fabulous adventure.  You'll learn to endure hard things.  You'll have wonderful friends.  You will love your church family.  You will dream big dreams and watch in anticipation as a holy God refines them and guides you.  You will marvel that He would send his only son to die for you, and one day the weight of that truth you've known so long will land hard on your heart, and you will actually write things to share His love with others.  And you'll see some of the friends you love now come to know Jesus, and you'll wonder a little bit if they ever saw him in you, so be careful how you live and what you say now, because the only thing you can take with you to heaven are people... you'll hope that you are a beautiful example of his grace going forward.  Because life passes quickly, and you'll get a better sense of that when you're older.

With great love for you,
Your 33-year old self

(Today, bloggers all over are sharing letters to their teenage selves in celebration of Emily Freeman's new book for teenage girls, "Graceful."  What would you say to your high school self? Let me know in the comments!)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Letter to My Mother on Her Birthday

Dear Mom,
When I think of my earliest memories of you, they are of how beautiful you are.  I remember being little and loving the smell of your perfume in the air and standing small, in awe of the rows of shoes in your closet.  I loved to try on your heels that had the bow with the big rhinestone inside.  Didn't you have those in 3 colors?  And you had tall boots in taupe, tan and black, and I loved to wear them in your big closet and pretend to be Wonderwoman.

Thank you for making me tithe, even when I was little.  I remember my $2.50 allowance each week, and I always took my quarter to church.  Giving to God first has become a habit, and I credit you with that.  You also taught me to avoid credit card debt, and that is something I am thankful for (and so is Selden!).  I hope we can teach our kids those same financial disciplines as well as you taught them to me.

You also are to blame for my highly type-A but very efficient way of making a weekly grocery list that is laid out in order of the aisles in the grocery store.  I thought you were so strange for all you organizational quirks, but now I have them too, so I think they are quite brilliant.

Thank you for always welcoming my friends and our messes into the house.  You saw the genius of play and making art without having lines to stay inside of and encouraged me to wallpaper the inside of my wooden bookshelf as an addition to Barbie's "Dream House."  You let me grow up with a sense of enterprise and possibility, and I know that's something God wants us all to develop in our children.  You gave me a shelf to sell my handmade earrings on in your salon, and you taught me about profit margins and invested in all of my dreams.

I love how you made every excuse to celebrate.  You set the table with candles and flowers, just because sitting down as a family to eat is something to be treasured.  And you cooked me fried eggs and toast for breakfast and woke me up with foot rubs until I graduated high school. (Have I told you recently that you are a much better person than I am?  It's true.  My kids use alarms to wake up and make their own breakfasts.  Please don't tell them about the fried eggs and the foot rubs.  Thanks.)

You threw the best spiral with a football of anyone in the neighborhood, boys included.  And you never pushed me to be all the things you loved.  When I didn't really love sports, and I liked art more, you were the biggest art fan on earth.

Thank you for bringing me along to serve others.  You lived out a life of ministry in front of me, and I now hope to live that with my kids.  I remember crouching in the car, hoping not to get shot driving through unsafe parts of town (for those who don't live in cities where this happens, yes, this is a normal part of life in some areas, not that many car jackers rush to steal Datsun 510's, so we were probably very safe, but that's another matter altogether) to deliver Thanksgiving gifts to a teenage mom and her little babies who lived in a two-room shotgun house.  I remember the kids licking Spaghettio's off the bare mattress when we walked in.  You taught me to seek out what others need, not what I think they need.  And you learned that as you went.  We took a turkey that day, and she didn't have an oven.  So you took a list of all the things she needed more than turkey, and we came back with curtains and diapers and other things.  And you took me to visit people who were sick.  And you invited the families of all the prisoners to our church for a special Christmas and made sure they went home with Christmas trees decorated and gifts and that they knew Jesus came for each of them and loves them.

I can't give you a birthday gift that could ever come close to being able to repay you for any of the riches you've cultivated in my life.  You've given me courage and determination and tenderness and Jesus.  And those things are worth everything.

Happy birthday to a mom I can never repay.
I love you to Jesus!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Finding Your Value

My writing has been hit or miss the past year.  I apologize.  It's been a year when my heart's been heavy and so many of the things in my mind have felt too personal to share or have been bits and pieces of other people's stories, and I haven't felt it was mine to tell.  So I've been waiting.  Waiting for inspiration or some brilliant thing to come upon me that would certainly be compelling enough to warrant a blog post.

But for the most part, nothing came.

I sat and stared at the screen.  I typed words, and then I hit backspace until the page was white again.  And I shut the computer down.

I've felt a little inadequate sometimes, to tell the truth.

My reality was shattered to bits by moments spent on the other side of the planet. Standing on a hilltop in a Ukrainian village whose name I still can't pronounce, looking past the smoke from burning trash piles to make out the tiny white speck of a building I was told by the boy standing with me had been his mother's home.  I stood there and caught my breath in my throat, because in that moment he stood beside one who desired to be a mom to him and could not be, because of governments and aging-out of adoption eligibility, looking out at one of the remaining bits of visible connection to a mother who had passed away.  And I just have struggled with how to reconcile all this in my mind, even though I know we live in a broken, hurting world.  

I wondered how many times he'd climbed that hill and looked at that house.

His village is a thousand years old.  We were jokingly told we may have been the first Americans to go there.  (I wonder if it's maybe true.)

We ate fresh sunflower seeds, plucked from the gigantic center of a flower he pulled out of a seemingly endless field of yellow.

It's these moments that have sort of tripped me up this year.

But they weren't all heavy.

We had a good laugh that my husband ate the shell of the sunflower seed, and that I ate the skin of a grape (and lived to tell... we Americans... I tell you what), and we all thought it was funny that we were in great anticipation of a small-town parade when we heard horns and sirens ringing out when in truth it was some sort of Ukrainian signal that you could take your garbage to be disposed of.

When I came home I cried.  And I pushed the Lord to please do something.  Anything.  Give me something to "do" so I feel better about all of this.  Give us an adoption plan.  Give me a ministry opportunity. Something.  Something to be busy and to feel productive.

But I'm learning again to quiet that and to wait. And that's not really my strength, but it's something I am developing with practice, this waiting and this patience. (If you haven't yet, I highly recommend NOT praying for patience.... really.  Anything but patience.  There must be oodles of things God develops in us that are more fun to develop than patience...)

And somewhere in the midst of my stubborn nagging of the Lord to let me remind him of his will and to be sure he knew how very good and well thought out all my plans are for my life, He reminded me of something.

I already have something to do.

I already have a ministry.

He's been whispering to my heart about how my eyes sometimes are focused too far out ahead of me.  So I've pulled back.  And I've been renewing my focus on home and family and the things that are right this minute my work and my offering to him.  And all of these things - these children, this man, our home - are gifts to my life from a really loving and gracious God.  A God who gives good things.  Who is good always.

Last night, I went into a small group class at church called Christianity in the Marketplace.  So, yes, I partially went because I was a smidge shy to go into the women's Bible study alone.... I know, I know- I'm too old to be nervous to attend something without a friend.  But there you have it.  It's true.  So I tagged along with my husband to this class.  And you know what?  It was wonderful.

It was relevant for me.  Because I do have a marketplace.  It's my home.  And in that hour last night, as we heard teaching and as I read the familiar passage of scripture reminding me to "do everything as unto the Lord," I was so encouraged to see my "work" in a new light.  I was able to grab hold of the vision that I saw so clearly 4 years ago when I first stayed home full time.  God reminded me that what I do each day in my home, if I do it heartily and for Him, does have big impact and eternal value.

It's easy for us moms to sometimes forget that what we spend our days doing is of great value.  And I think sometimes the most critical voices we hear are our own.  We sometimes try so hard in our own strength to "make" something valuable of our lives and our time, when really, it's already that.  Because each of our moments is a gift from God.  And no matter what it is we do, when we do it fully and joyfully and diligently and heartily and "as unto the Lord," we can consider our days an offering to give back to the One who has given us this gift of today.

Today is beautiful.  I had coffee earlier than usual, and Sage and I made granola bars.  We took coffee to my husband at work.  Then we went to Target and chose some fun things to use making birthday gifts for my mom and grandmother.  Sage leaned her second memory verse of our "ABC's of Scripture," and she recited it while working diligently on her special gift.  She played the metal triangle instrument we found in the dollar section of Target spontaneously at a number of different occasions: to signal nap time, to signal prayer time, to signal that I could give her a kiss. (Now it's quiet upstairs, so I'm enjoying her sleeping after a 3 week stretch wherein I feared she'd outgrown nap time!)

I'd like to encourage you today to see your time and your life and your value as the Lord does.  Right now, today, you are in a place where God will use your energy and time and talents to be a blessing to others and an example of His love in this world.  Have you had any seasons of life that God has used to change how you see your time?  Are there any ways I can be praying for you today?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reason #359 Why Teenagers Rock

We don't see enough of the good teenagers do these days.
Here's some GOOD stuff teens are doing for others and for God. 
Get ready to smile (and/or cry)...  

Bangor Baptist Church's Thrive Student Ministries serving inner city Philadelphia at Center for Student Ministries (CSM). Video production by Kanishko, who 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Teens on a Mission: Philadelphia

Hey everyone!  I've been so caught up in my own busy days that I haven't sat down to write in ages.  This year has been incredible.  I've wrestled a little with what to share and what not to share, because so much of the story is not only mine, so I've been living it and not writing it.  But I've missed being here in this space with you all, so I'm excited to be back!

Sunday at 4 a.m. (yes, that's right) we woke up to drive four of our teenagers to church, where they were meeting the teens in Thrive Student Ministries at Bangor Baptist to depart bright and early for a week in Philadelphia doing missions work.  It's been an amazing process, because the trip required each teen to raise $800, and that amount seemed incomprehensible sometimes (x4!), but the Lord, in His perfect faithfulness, provided.  (Here's a photo from 4a.m. - Kanishko snuck out of the shot, but here's my hubby with the girls!)

The teens will be working in the city all week, and they took a prayer tour yesterday - here's a photo of the skyline from their last stop.  They also sat together under an overpass where, each night, homeless people gather to sleep, and they saw shoes hanging from electrical wires over the streets and learned that this usually is in memory of a child who died from gang violence or drugs.

Before heading out each morning, they gather to read the Bible and have some prayer.  Today, their reading is from Matthew9: 35-38 "Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.'" 

Today, I'm praying that each of the teens on this trip will be broken by the same things that break the heart of Jesus, and I'm asking that as the Lord will take those broken pieces and put them back together in the shape of his perfect will for each of their lives, that he will form in them hearts that hear His voice and are willing to walk in uncomfortable places, just like Jesus did when he put on human skin and walked on this earth.  I'm asking the Lord to speak into each life how He desires to use the gifts and talents knit into each teenager for His glory and for the good of others.  I'm asking God to take this week and fill each moment with His presence, and I ask He would grow each of these students into young adults who chase hard after the heart of Christ in the hurting parts of our world and that "his harvest field" would have some lifelong workers in these students.  

If you'd like to pray for these kids and for Philadelphia with me, please do!  And if you'd like to leave your thoughts or prayers in the "comments," I'll be sure the kids see them when they get home.  Thanks friends!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Beautiful Wazhma

Where to begin....?  We've been so busy, my family and the Shahzaman family both.  In January we accomplished a lot of "starting."  The kids started school, their mom and adult sisters started processes of applying for aid as refugees here in Maine.  And then there has been the waiting.

February has been a strange mix of racing and waiting.  We've been at countless meetings and appointments, visits with housing authorities, dental clinics, schools, learning centers, errands.  We have filled out mountains of paperwork.  (Have I mentioned MOUNTAINS?????)  And then we are told to wait.

"Our" Shahzaman family (as Selden and I have come to know them in our hearts!) are a family of people so amazing and so real and so strong, I don't even know where to begin to describe all I love about them. But I'll give it a whirl.  There is so much to say about each of these people I love, so it will take a few days, and I'll talk about them one at a time, ok?

Wazhma is so tender-hearted and so funny.  One day she and I were driving to the human service office to inquire about her Refugee Assistance, and we made it toward Bangor, and then she asked me something about documents, which I said she needs to have with her.  So we turn around, drive back to the hotel where they're still living (Lord bring them a home soon, please, in Jesus' name, and thank you in advance for this answered prayer).  She shows me what she has for papers, while we're in the parking lot, only to find out she had what we needed and was asking about some documents for her upcoming hair apprenticeship.  So we sat in the car and laughed, because so often we don't understand each other, and all we can do is just laugh and hug (and then go to Mc Donald's for a caramel frappe - her favorite).  So after hugging - and getting a frappe - we began our drive back to human services.

Wazhma said to me while we were driving, "I think one day I go to India, because I think there are very big (meaning "many") hungry children there.  And hungry children is no good."  I agreed with her.  She continued, "Is there very big ("many") Christian people in India?" I told her, "No, very small ("few") but very big other religions there."  She told me, "I think we will go and be very big Christians.  And we feed hungry children there."

I swallowed hard.

A few evenings before this, Wazhma and I were walking through WalMart at about 7:30 with her mom, gathering some groceries for their family.  I hadn't wanted to go.  I was tired.  (And I really don't love WalMart, no offense.)  We walked up and down the aisles, and Wazhma and I were talking a little, examining food items and trying to determine what they were equivalent to in Ukraine.  Her stomach growled, and she patted it and said, "I hungry!" I asked her if she'd eaten at all, and she said, "No today."

Conviction washed over me, hot and hard to bear.  I ate three times that day.  And I didn't feel like being at WalMart, and my friend Wazhma had not eaten anything and was hungry.  Lord, forgive me....

And my sister-friend Wazhma,  who herself (despite my valiant efforts to make sure they have ample food and trips to the store and meals and everything) is sometimes hungry, has a heart that hurts for the hungry bellies of little ones in India.  Have I told you how much I love this woman?

One day, after a day packed with errands and meetings and school visits, Wazhma and I went to the Brewer Library, so I could get books for Sagie and she could get some for Roma, who is 7.  Wazhma wants to help him with his alphabet and his English.  At the desk, I told the librarian that Wazhma needs a card, that yes, she is a Brewer resident, and Wazhma shuffled through her various documents to find the necessary photo ID.  "What is her address?" I was asked.  After giving the address at the Inn, I was told, "Oh, we don't give cards to people at the Inn.  We've had problems with that before."  "What!?" I was stunned.  "Can she use your card?" I was asked.  "She is a Brewer resident," I told them, "and she would like her own card.  She has 5 siblings in school here in Brewer, and she wants to read to her little brother, who's in Mrs. Raymond's first grade class, so he can learn his letters."  "Can she use your card, then?" I was asked again.

I cried.  I stood at the desk in the Brewer library and I actually cried.  (I am not a crier-in-public, ok?) Then I said, without pausing for air, and with tears rolling and voice shaking, "She is a refugee, and she came to this country and was in a Muslim housing project even though she's a Christian, and her family is now in Maine, and she is my friend.  I've known them for a couple years, and she is not going to steal your books or not return them. She lives in Brewer.  The five kids are in school here, and they're not just going to up and leave with these books.  Can she PLEASE have a card of her own?  This is SO undignified! She has NOTHING of her own now, and all she wants is a library card, so she can read to her little brother!" I wiped my eyes.  Shelley, a librarian who I've known for years came over and smiled at us, and she took a library card out and issued it to Wazhma (I am a big fan of Shelley).  Wazhma and I left with our stacks of books.

In the parking lot we walked, arms around each other's shoulders, to the van.  "Maybe this is a very bad day!" she said, and we squeezed each other and laughed.  "Yes," I said, "but tomorrow a good day." She agreed, and we laughed a little more.  Sometimes that's all you can do after crying in the library.

Wazhma is stunning.  Beauty personified.  And to see her heart....  Oh my goodness.  The story her life has been up to this point is something I am still learning of in bits and pieces, through her broken English and her emphatic gestures and expressions.  But the message always comes through.  She has seen a lot of hard places.  She has lived through more fear and hurt and loss than I will probably ever know in my whole lifetime, and she is still tender-hearted, warm, open.  Quick to laugh.  Filled with hope even when weary from the long months of waiting for something that feels like roots being put down in this new country.  And it is not easy. 

Today, will you pray with me specifically for my sweet friend Wazhma?  She is hoping to start apprenticing at The L Factor with my childhood buddy Gina, and I am praying that all her documents can be perfectly provided so this can start soon.  I'm praying for her future here to be blessed.  And I am praying for her to be in a permanent home very soon.  Bangor Baptist is still accepting donations to help pay their ever-growing hotel debt, and if you are moved in your heart to give a gift of any amount toward this, it is tax-deductible and is greatly appreciated and can be sent to:
Bangor Baptist Church
1476 Broadway  
Bangor, Maine 04401 
(memo: Refugee Assistance). 

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.... What, then, shall we say in response to this?  If God is us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave im up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" Romans 8:28 & 31, 32

Saturday, January 7, 2012

So His Beauty Eclipses our Battle

Goodbye, 2011.  You wrung me out.  Left me weary.  Drug me through the trenches.  Leveled my heart.  Rendered me speechless at times.  Shook apart the familiar.  Relentlessly bombarded my spirit with battles. 

And I'd just like to say thank you.

(And please don't keep on doing that in 2012. I'd sort of like a break.)

There are some things I learned last year, and I'll share them with you, because I hope that in your uncertain places, on your battlefields, in the days of having your fingers pried away from the things you have always clung to for comfort, you may be blessed and encouraged by the beauty of our faithful God. And the knowledge that you are in good company in those hard places.

In the battlefield seasons, one way we can learn to "abide" is by choosing to "engage elsewhere," so the Lord is doing what He promises to do in His Word: fighting on our behalf.

When things are hard, and they will be, focusing on the "hard" will exhaust and deplete us of all the good resources the Lord wants us to be filled with.  Because the real battles are spritual, we can waste a lot of our energy trying in our own strength to handle things, but God wants us to be useful for HIM.  I believe that we are built to best handle hard places when we are at the same time working on building good things for the glory of God.

I love the passage in Nehemiah, when he talks about how the families are stationed to build the wall, and they are both building and battling, as also we can be!

"Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side while he worked."  Nehemiah 4:17 & 18

We are promised in the Word of God that "In this world, we will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)  

The trick is not to be distracted by the trouble.  For me, that has taken some practice.

The very best way of doing this is to dive head-first into serving the Lord and serving others.  An ultimate act of faith in the Lord is being able to hand Him the difficult things, the battle-places, the unknowns, the things that hurt or induce anxiety, and let him focus on those things for us, while we purpose in our hearts to focus on serving.

We pray about the hard stuff.  We fast.  We talk with friends who can encourage us.  We use wisdom and seek cousel.  We do what needs to be done.  And then we step back and move in the direction of service, while the Lord does the stuff only He can do behind the scenes.

It's knowing when to actively engage and when to intentionally abide.

Jehoshaphat learned about engaging and abiding and the power of worship.  When faced with a "vast army," God told him, "Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army.  For the battle is not yours, but God's." (2 Chronicles 20:15)  And Jehoshaphat walked out what he needed to walk out, but he stepped onto that battle field to face the other army, and he did so with intentional praises to the Lord "for the splendor of His holyness" and "as they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated."  

We as humans really are powerless.  Everything is Him.  Everything is for His glory.  We have to get out of the way, stop trying to take over the wheel, stop trying to write the story, stop trying to fight the battle and start remembering that it's all under His control.

Our greatest strength is in recognizing our weakness in light of His great might.
Then we can let go.
I mean, really let go.

What we are to cling to is not our desire to control but our desire to serve.  We must serve in ways that stretch us.

We must understand that the Lord will sometimes ask us to say "YES!" to something that IS too big, too hard, too expensive, too radical before we even have the slightest idea of HOW He is going to work it out.  

Because we know Him.  And He will work it out.

This August, we did that very thing.  We didn't have the extra money for a trip to Ukraine that the Lord put on our hearts.  And we said yes, told a kid we love who's half the world away that we're coming, and we were committed.  Before we had one dollar raised toward it.  And just in time, each time we came to a need (purchasing plane tickets - we had $5 left over!) the Lord had provided exactly enough. And then He provided - through all of our friends' gracious giving - extra!  The great thing is, because all that we had was given to us, we couldn't receive any glory!  It was only for the Lord.  Which is how it always ought to be, but sometimes, when we don't have to trust and wait and rely on His provision, we deceive ourselves into thinking we have done some great thing.  And all the good is always only God.

There is glory for Him when there is need in us.

I hate asking for help. And I hate not knowing how things are going to work out.

So the Lord hit me in both of these places this year, because I had to ask for help with the fund raising.  And I had no idea how it would come together.

But I said yes ahead of time.  And that unleashed what has become a whole new reckless type of faith in me.  And it's amazing!

God's Word isn't filled with promises just so we can recite them and sound spiritual.  He gives us promises to cling to.  With our fingernails.  With desperate hanging-on.  When things don't make sense, as well as when they do.

There are often moments of not understanding and of feeling totally helpless that precede the overwhelming flood of grace that God pours out in answering our deepest plea for His help and His work in our lives.  And that is very cool.  He never leaves us stranded.  But He will sometimes let us wait for a while, so that we have let go of all the stuff of "us" that could interfere with His receiving the glory. And it makes us stronger.  Braver.  Tougher.  More useful.

God desires and deserves our trust.

The Lord will tell us the "what" and often not include the "why" or the "how."  Only in the trusting are we able to be ok with that.  And sometimes it takes practice.  A lot of practice.

This past year, the Lord has taken us on a huge adventure, closer to His heart, deeper into His love of the orphan, the widow, the fatherless and the stranger.  We've chased hard after His will and to obey.

We've worked to let go of what we are comfortable with, even when we don't understand, because we know God is good and will take care of us.  We've been led into a different church, and that was hard, because we love the church we attended before - the teaching, the friends, the worship.  But God asked us to pack up our family and go across town, and we weren't exactly sure why (I pester about why a lot, so I think God likes to stretch me).  And piece by piece, He is confirming we're in His will.

Some things are hard and beautiful at the same time.  
That's ok. 

In our new church, we are seeing that God has laid a groundwork in advance of what is turning out to be a perfect network of relationships in place to receive a family of refugees we love dearly. We met these amazing kids in person on our Ukraine trip last summer.  They are Afghani refugees, and they called Sunshine their home for several years, while they and their mom awaited entry to the U.S., which they were granted this past September.  Initially they were placed in Atlanta, but the desire of their hearts is to be in Maine.  So very soon, they will be moving here!

Our own family is being blessed in our new church as well: our kids are engaged, we are making new friends, we are under strong and gifted and personable leadership, but also the Lord had a plan that we had no idea about, and only in glimpses is He revealing the perfection of how He has set this thing up.  We are thankful for a pastor who, without having known us long, has shown a heart to welcome and serve our refugee friends alongside others and ourselves, continually making available his network of resources for their benefit.  Yesterday I met a church member who has offered a wonderful first home to our friends, and I can see in her spirit a mothering heart that will bless them tremendously.  I received an email from a Russian woman at church, who I have yet to meet in person, who is eager to welcome our Russian-speaking friends and be a friend to them herself.  

God is good.  All the time.  When we understand fully and when we don't. We always know He's good.  So we can go into the places He leads with confidence that He will be glorified and we will be blessed!

When we returned last summer from Sunshine, I cried.  I cried the whole way across Europe, across the ocean and into Boston.  I fell asleep briefly on a bus ride from Boston to Bangor, but when I woke up, I cried more.  I cried at the grocery store the first time I went after returning home, because I saw sunflowers for sale.  And Sasha's village is filled with sunflowers (which are prettier than the ones here). I cried at random times for months. My heart was so leveled by our trip to Ukraine.  I truly wanted to pack up my family and all we could fit in suitcases and move to Sunshine and look after the kids. (This was not possible or what God was asking right now, however.) My heart was in a million pieces, having seen a bit of what the Lord is doing there and how tremendous the needs are and how precious the people.  

But spending myself last year on behalf of others... that was good.  It was necessary.  It has to be a permanent lifestyle.  Because it is the only way of true joy.  It's the only way to set aside the things that are heavy and to pick up the joy of the Lord.

On my oldest daughter's 13th birthday, just a week away, we will be receiving a really huge gift from the Lord.  It is then the family we came to love dearly at Sunshine will be arriving in Maine, to enter into the new future the Lord has prepared.  They will be driven by a missionary friend we've known for two years but will meet in person for the first time.  His church in Kentucky is funding their move and a large part of their initial lodging.  And a church in Bangor, where we barely even know anyone yet, is awaiting their arrival with open hearts and arms.  Friends from all over my part of the state - from a number of churches and businesses and families - have reached out to this family for over a year, so although it's their first time stepping foot in Maine, the Lord has prepared a place for these refugees to find refuge in Him and in presence of His people.

It's this type of chasing, this type of investment of time and energy, that causes the Lord's great beauty to eclipse the battles that go on in life.  The hard stuff is small in light of the greatness of my God.  We have to fix our focus.

Our hearts are a bit like our eyes. We can really only look at one thing at a time.  
We can look inward, or we can look upward

I'd like to encourage you to join me in 2012 in a bit of a challenge.  I'd like this to be a year of looking up.  It's not always easy. I'll probably fall short a lot of days. But if you'd like to point your heart's focus upward with me, we will certainly see the Lord resolve the peripheral stuff, the battles that only He can fight anyway, the troubles this world tosses toward us, the things that we really can't control. What we can control is how we aim our gaze... We will be seeing most whatever it is we are looking at, right?  Let's look together at the beauty of our Lord Jesus Christ and chase hard after the things He has in mind for us to do in His service, for His glory.  

(And check out this awesome promise God makes us, if we're willing to live other-focused and Christ-focused!  Who'd want to miss this!?)

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, 
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - 
when you see the naked, to clothe him, 
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, 
and your healing will quickly appear; 
then your righteousness will go before you, 
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will andwer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, 
with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry 
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, 
then your light will rise in the darkness, 
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strenghten your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden, 
like a spring whose waters never fail." (Isaiah 58:6-11)