When Things Collide

There’s a place my heart and mind frequently go when I meditate on the love of God.

It’s a place where, on hard days, deep sadness, yearning and joy collide; on easier days, they simply intertwine.

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Long before Chloe fell ill, long before my world fell apart, I fell in love with a verse from Zephaniah.

Someone had put the words to music, and as I sang the little chorus alone or in groups I could almost sense the warmth of God’s arms around me, the tenderness of his eyes on mine, and the joy in his voice as he sang his song of affectionate love to me. It brought joy to my heart.

Fast forward to the days of Chloe’s suffering.

I would sing to her, albeit off-tune, the sweet and true lyrics of “Jesus Loves Me,” even while crying bitter, heartbroken tears, yearning for her to be healed, longing for her to know how very precious she was.

Fast forward further to the inevitable and terrible day of her passing. I was still singing, and still questioning.

Then came the afternoon when we had to lay her in that grave. I couldn’t bear to watch as they covered her casket with soil, but Juan, bless his heart, stayed with her little body till the end.

Even as we said good-bye, I knew that her soul was long gone and that in some miraculous way she was resting in the warmth of God’s embrace, cradled in his arms, free of suffering and pain.

I knew beyond doubt that she was—and will forever be—loved. Tenderly loved and rejoiced over by her Creator and Savior. Loved and treasured by us.

So when the time came for us to choose a gravestone and select an epitaph, it only made sense to include lines from that comforting verse:

“The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”

Amazingly, a year after Chloe’s passing, a dear friend gifted me with a powerful, perfect reminder that Chloe was “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” In this depiction of deep love, Jesus sits in a rocking chair and tenderly embraces a tiny babe.

Most poignantly, it’s nail-pierced hands that hold the babe.

Those same hands hold me. Those same hands hold you.

We are cherished.

We are loved.

 

A Segue to Scripture

Day 4 in 31 Days of Journeying with the “Jesus Prayer”

Lord Jesus Christ, merciful and loving Savior, make me ever mindful of your constant, gracious, empowering Presence and your heart of tender affection toward me.

Back when I began penning my personal version of the “Jesus Prayer,” I searched for a passage of Scripture that would reflect and reinforce the truths I wanted to contemplate. I ended up in Ephesians 3, with Paul’s description of Jesus’ incredible love and power. It seemed to be the perfect fit.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

For a few days, I worked at memorizing the passage. Then I let it slip from my consciousness.

Of late, though, as I’ve leaned into my “Jesus Prayer” in the midst of both mundane moments and higher-stress situations, Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians has re-surged in its significance, and the truths expressed in his words have begun to seep into my soul in newer, more palpable ways.

When a task seems particularly daunting, I’m reminded that Christ’s power is at work within me.

When I want to give in to sloth (yes, I believe I’m an Enneagram 9), I’m reminded that His power in me is far greater than the magnetic pull of my chair or the lure of Netflix and its captivating drama.

When I’m tempted to compare myself with others or to doubt my significance before God, I’m reminded that his love is wider, longer, higher, and deeper than I can ever imagine—and I ask for a greater awareness of this incomprehensible force.

When I’m uncertain how to love, or even whether I can truly love, I’m reminded that Christ’s immense affection can flow through me to others.

Jesus’ love and power. What gifts—gifts as yet still largely unexplored by me.

But it’s a journey.

Cordiality or Kindness–the Million Dollar Question

Day 3,  31 Days of Journeying with the Jesus Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, merciful and loving Savior, make me ever mindful of your constant, gracious, empowering Presence and your heart of tender affection toward me.

Someone wronged me today, in a rather public way—attacking me, I believe, based on a misinterpretation of my actions.

My immediate reaction was to defend myself.

Later, after calming down a bit, I managed to be cordial. But cordial is a cold word, and my goal ought rather to be kind—kind like Jesus.

And so my challenge is to keep the mercies of Christ in the forefront of my mind—that my character might be conformed to his, that the intentions of my heart might be pure, that my words might be seasoned with grace, and that my actions might be kind and considerate. That’s no easy matter and is of course only possible through His power at work in my deep places.

Lord Jesus Christ, merciful and loving Savior, may your love and mercy pervade my heart and flow through me to others.

Breathing In, Breathing Out

Day 2 of “31 Days of Journeying with the Jesus Prayer”

Lord Jesus Christ, merciful and loving Savior, make me ever mindful of your constant, gracious, empowering Presence and your heart of tender affection toward me.

Many who know me are aware that I’m frequently besieged by intense feelings of guilt—guilt that bombards my heart, mind, and soul, guilt that leaves me seemingly unable to fight back.

My counselor friend says this could be what psychologists call “magnification.” Others say it could be a form of spiritual attack. Perhaps it’s both. Regardless of the label, though, getting caught up in an overwhelming awareness of my sins, faults, and failures has a debilitating and paralyzing effect on me.

In fact, last night I awoke in the wee hours of the morning to find myself in just such a grip of guilt.

Enter my “Jesus Prayer” and a few lines of Matt Redman’s song “Your Grace Finds Me.”

Matt Redman sings of “breathing in God’s grace” and “breathing out his praise.” Last night, as I lay there wide awake in my all-consuming guilt, I slowly and deliberately began “breathing in” the grace of God’s mercies and “breathing out” my gratefulness for his forgiveness and for his tender, compassionate love toward me.

In Lamentations 3:19-23, God’s Word paints a picture of this same kind of exchange.

“I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.”

Amen.

When Reconciliation Comes Hard

 

A number of years ago, I took offense.

The details, of course, don’t matter. Suffice it to say that my pride was wounded and that I was left holding a grudge—a grudge that played havoc with my emotions and interfered with my peace of mind. The ripples traveled; negative feelings are hard to hide.

At the time I was aware that my plight probably resembled that of the infamous Euodia and Syntyche in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Their conflict had intensified to such a degree that Paul had to call them out by name and urge them “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” While the source of their disagreement is left to our imagination, they were probably engaged in some sort of rivalry that was infecting all those around them.

Regardless of the details of their situation, Paul’s plea for them to come to their senses seemed like it was addressed directly to me and the person I perceived to be my “rival.” In my case, though, it was falling on deaf ears.

Because, of course, being of the same mind in the Lord is rather impossible if you’re caught up in ego issues and you’re in a desperate search for the kind of added-on value that has human recognition and approval as its source. My yearning for significance overshadowed my desire for true harmony, and the result wasn’t pretty. An envious heart doesn’t produce good fruit.

Sadly, I held that grudge for too long.

Then God took me on a new leg of my journey, one that shifted my focus from competition and comparison to a battle for my daughter’s life.

We lost that fight, and the pain from that horrible time still cuts deep into my soul. I distinctly remember, though, one brief conversation with my “rival” while we were in the midst of my daughter’s ordeal. I had been feeling overwhelmed by folks who kept telling me to “have faith,” but in contrast, the words this woman spoke that day freed me—at least temporarily—from guilt over my perceived failure in the realm of belief and healing. I felt surprisingly understood and encouraged. She even gifted me with a book of meditations that spoke life, light, and love to my soul during that devastating time.

But though tensions eased, true reconciliation was a long time coming. Our lives led us in different directions, and since we rarely saw one another there was no driving need to work through any issues from the past.

God, however, does amazing things—even after 20 years. Our paths recently converged again in the context of growth toward a more contemplative following-after of Jesus. By coincidence, and at different churches, we’re both participating in a three-year spiritual formation process put together by an organization called VantagePoint3. The focus is on exploration of who God is, who we are, and what He desires to do in us. We’re learning to pay more careful attention to what He’s revealing through His Word and through the circumstances of our lives.

When I saw some of my former “rival’s” posts on Facebook, I realized that she was seeking and treasuring the kind of walk with God that I was pursuing as well. So when it came time for me to find a mentor for this new journey, I sensed God indicating that she might be just the one to accompany me on the path.

They say that we should take note of the kinds of things that make us cry. In movies, the point that tends to bring me to tears is when rifts are healed and new understanding is born. Was God bringing my former “rival” and me to such a moment?

It seems that He was. To this woman’s astonishment, I asked her to be my mentor, and after prayerful consideration, she agreed. At her wise insistence, we first dealt with “the elephant in the room,” each acknowledging our issues, reactions, and pride of the past. Then we put it all aside and embarked on the first steps of this new phase of our lives.

As we meet, encourage, and prayerfully support one another, I’m gleaning wisdom from the insights my friend has gained during her own journey this past year. We’re now walking together on a path toward greater intimacy with God, not as competitors, and not, for me, as a person desperate to prove my place in the world.

And this brings me greater joy than I would have imagined some 20 years ago.

On Friendship, Silver, and Gold

What Janet and I share reflects that mixed-metal effect of gold and silver: years of friendship make what we share truly “golden,” but our diverging paths of the past few years lend a trace of silver as well.

There are a few songs from my childhood that hold nuggets of timeless truth.

One song in particular is a little tune we sang during my time in Girl Scouts. While most of my memories of those days are rather vague and increasingly fuzzy (summer day camp, “sit-upons” woven out of strips of newspaper, ditties about Little Rabbit Foo Foo, random badges, and of course the infamous cookies), the lyrics of that one unforgettable song have grown more meaningful and poignant over the years.

Make new friends, but keep the old;
One is silver, the other is gold.

A few years ago my heart was unexpectedly crushed by what seemed to be a crisis in friendship. In reality it was no such thing, but the impact nonetheless sent me into an emotional tailspin. I spiraled downward and crashed hard.

In inexplicable ways, though, that ordeal brought about some deep changes in my life, and I have awakened to the great joy found in forging new friendships. My world is widening and my heart is growing. I’m in awe of the way God is enriching my soul through these people who are opening their lives to me—me, a gal who until a few years ago was encapsulated in a rather small world. While at times these new friends offer me novel thoughts to ponder and conscience-stirring causes to embrace, they are just as apt to open a window of comprehension into my own past experiences as we tell one another our stories and contemplate the paths we’ve traveled.

Yes, silver is precious.

And so, of course, is gold.

My “golden friends,” like me, are getting noticeably older. Over the years, we’ve walked through joy and sorrow, peace and anguish. Weddings, births, and deaths. Misunderstandings, impatience, and ugly attitudes. Fractured hearts and fractured minds, restoration and renewal.

We’ve spoken words of affirmation and acceptance, and we’ve encouraged one another to “keep on keeping on” while attempting to love one another with the love of Christ, knowing that He will carry on to completion the good work that He has begun in us.

But one undeniable reality is that our individual capacity for memory just doesn’t work as well as it used to. We’re becoming more forgetful. For a while, we blamed childbirth and/or hectic lifestyles; now, we blame menopause. And, truthfully, we occasionally even wonder if early dementia is beginning to set in.

But one of the joys of these long-lasting friendships is that we can actually help one another remember.  We can recall the ways our friendships were forged in the midst of college adventures or community outreach and ministry. We can remember times of silly antics and riotous laughter or times when God’s presence was made all the more real to us through the embrace of loving, caring hearts.

This brings to mind, of course, the most heart-wrenching experience of my life, an experience that revolved around the illness and eventual death of my daughter. Many of my “old friends” were the ones that walked me through that time.

And some of them are the ones that helped me laugh again afterward.

I’ll always remember my first belly laugh after Chloe’s death. There we were in Palm Desert, a small group of old college friends on a weekend getaway, and as we were chatting about days gone by something set us off into the kind of laughter that causes your belly to ache and sends tears streaming down your face. And for me, in that moment, tears of sadness merged with tears of laughter as it dawned on me that I was doing the unimaginable: my daughter was dead, and I was laughing. Laughing hard. Yes, she was alive in Christ, but she was physically absent from me after more than a year of horrible suffering. And I was laughing.

That laughter, incongruent as it was with the despair that had gripped my heart for so long, was part of my healing journey.

Of course, when I mentioned that bittersweet experience of 17 years ago to these same friends just recently, they had little recollection of the event. It hadn’t stirred their souls in the same way it had stirred mine. But the memory-prompting, for all of us, served as a palpable reminder of the golden nature of long-lasting friendship.

And then, not to be overlooked, are those “old friends” who for one reason or another have slipped quietly away from our everyday worlds. Reconnecting with a few of these ladies has added an additional layer of depth to my life. In fact, as I interact with them I feel as if I’m mining in a field with veins of both gold and silver, not always sure of what I’ll find as these old friends and I dig into unexplored ground, encountering new challenges while holding onto the richness of our shared pasts.

Silver and gold. These days I treasure both.

It’s the Little Things That Matter

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31 Days of Philippians 4:8

The most sincere compliment is the one passed on to us by others.

This truth has stayed in my mind for years (and here I owe a big thanks to Pastor Doug Moore).  The affirmation I share via a relayed compliment just might be the salve that someone’s soul desperately needs, or, less dramatically, might simply be a bright spot in a person’s rather blasé day. Either way, there’s power there–all the more so because when the words arrive indirectly there’s less doubt about the original speaker’s sincerity.

And that’s just one way to share joy and lift spirits.

This afternoon, my dear photographer friend, Wendell, sent me a photo of my daughter. It’s a photo that I’ll cherish for years because it portrays a certain depth of character that I’ve long recognized but which isn’t always obvious to the casual observer. Wendell truly made my day.

Then there’s my friend Cecy. I’ve noticed that rather than simply clicking the Facebook “like” button, she often takes the time to post affirming comments on people’s posts. Through that one act, her kind, thoughtful words bring smiles to many hearts.

And printed out right here in front of me I have Ann Voskamp’s latest challenge—her November calendar suggesting ways for all of us to “live broken & given, like bread.” For November 1 she writes, “It’s the month of thankfulness—so think of three gifts each day you are thankful for—and then reach out to thank the three people who directly or indirectly make that gift possible!” (You can download the calendar by going to annvoskamp.com/sticky-notes/.)

The kindnesses of my friends Wendell and Cecy.

The truths articulated by Doug Moore.

The challenges put out there by Ann Voskamp.

These dear folks and their examples do for me what the writer of Hebrews exhorts us all to do: spur one another on to love and good deeds. The desire of my heart is to lean into this, to embrace it, to live it. I hope you’ll join me.

The Two-Way Street of Thanks

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31 Days of Philippians 4:8

Some things are just hard to throw away, like a treasured collection of particularly-meaningful thank-you cards that have come to me over the years–cards reminding me that somewhere along the way, in one manner or another, I’ve made a small difference in someone’s life.

Yet last night at parent conferences, when I went out of my way to tell the art teacher how much my daughter appreciates her class, I was struck afresh by the deep sense of joy I experience in expressing gratitude to others.

I didn’t really need to visit this teacher, but it occurred to me that her room probably wasn’t of high priority for many parents. Their most urgent business, more than likely, was with teachers of more academic courses–or with teachers of courses that were threatening to irreparably damage their kids’ GPA’s. But my daughter had mentioned her fondness for this class and for the teacher, and I wanted to pass on the gratitude. After all, I figured, who wouldn’t want to know that they’re appreciated?

But I wasn’t prepared for the response my few little words evoked on the face of this particular instructor. I could tell she was touched, and knowing I’d added just a bit to her happiness gave me a deep sense of fulfillment as well.

Whatever is right…pure…excellent.

Thankfulness–it’s the right kind of mindset.

And thanking those who bless us–it’s a pure, excellent thing to do.

That Admirable Expression of Love

31 Days of Philippians 4:8

I’m pretty sure my dad set a record with the number of care packages he sent my way during my college years.

He’d send snacks of all kinds and numerous odds and ends to facilitate life or brighten my day. Enclosed would be a brief note that always ended with the words “Let us hear from you.” And to make it easy for me to stay in touch, he kept me equipped with one of those calling cards we all used back in the day.

I always had illusions of following in my dad’s footsteps, of being that same kind of faithful, attentive parent once my kids headed to college.  But my son’s been away for more than a year now, and while I’ve mailed him a couple of boxes, the care package thing hasn’t gone quite the way I’d envisioned.

Today, though, I’m renewing my efforts, because I remember how loved and cared for I used to feel when I’d find a package notice in my Biola mailbox. I’d join the line waiting at the window and then head eagerly back to the dorm, anticipating the novelties I’d find nestled inside the box so thoughtfully put together by my dad. And almost always, I’d receive a few envious looks or comments from friends who weren’t loved on in quite the same way as my dad loved on me.

So as my son gets ready to turn 23, I’m sending a few treats his way, hoping that the same affection showered on me in that thoughtful, tangible way so many years ago will be felt in turn by this young man I love so dearly.

Whatever is Lovely, part 2

31 Days of Philippians 4:8

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The mixture of friendship and nature is one of the most delightful combinations on this earth, and when that friend is Jane (Lundgren) Sirianni–the very first person I met at Biola–and the view of nature is one found along Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, well, my heart is beyond happy.

The amazing thing is that this friendship is just one of several that I’ve seen rekindled of late, and the blessing of reconnecting with these friends from long ago has brought me much unexpected joy.

Here’s to renewed friendships, road trips, and memories old and new.