On Extractions and the Rich Power of Words

These days, I tend to wonder about a lot of things.345

In part, this is due to my age and stage in life.

In part, it’s due to experiences of this past year.

And in part it comes, quite simply, from the pervasive hopelessness that seems to overtake me more often than not.

Caught in waves of questions, guilt, and self-condemnation, I wonder if I’ll ever get past this, if I’ll ever be able to embrace grace and move forward, and if I’ll ever really and truly be able to offer something of value to those around me. I’ve been frozen, unable to concentrate well. And all too often I’ve hidden myself in games of Spider Solitaire rather than allow my mind to explore the rough and ragged areas of life that I’m trying to avoid.

But at least—and this is huge—I can now read again.

For a while, it was all I could do to take in a short blogpost. Finally, though, words penned by authors as diverse as Henri Nouwen and Shauna Niequist have begun to make their way into my soul, resonating with some of my deeper places and helping me to see beyond the desolation that has seemed intent on consuming me these past several months.

And believe it or not, an infected tooth was the catalyst for this step forward.

I had been trying to run—from myself, my thoughts, my reality. Then came last Friday, when after weeks of discomfort a problematic molar finally had to be yanked out, and with it came a significant amount of infection that had been hidden between the roots.

The extraction was actually somewhat painful. An hour’s worth of attempts to anesthetize the area had met with only partial success. So by the time I arrived home, I was feeling just a bit sorry for myself, and eventually a few tears gave way to a waterfall and I was pouring out my lament to God, finally confessing my frustrations, my regrets, my heart that was breaking from words spoken to me and by me, a heart breaking from my own failures and the failures of others. Literally and figuratively, it was a watershed moment.

But that moment was just the beginning. The entire weekend was punctuated by times of tears as I dealt more directly and more humbly with my regrets of the past months and even the past years. God kept at me, relentlessly yet beautifully: a conversation with my dear friend Lisa about laying it all out before God and trusting Him to cleanse, heal and forgive; a night of live worship, soul-stirring music and prayer led Chris Tomlin, Matt Redmond, Max Lucado and others at The Forum. Many rich words, many bittersweet tears.

Through it all, there was a sense that God was moving, that the infection that had been pervading my soul was being slowly extracted, not as quickly as the infection that had been yanked out with the tooth, but it was being extracted nonetheless.

And it didn’t stop there. I encountered Henri Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart and was blown away by what I found there:

The struggle is real because the danger is real. It is the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness…

The encounter with Christ does not take place before, after, or beyond the struggle with our false self and its demons. No, it is precisely in the midst of this struggle that our Lord comes to us…

Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature.

This is a journey. In reality, it’s a journey I’ve been on for quite some time. I’ve taken a number of detours, and I’ve circled the same area more than once. But it feels so good to once again take in the richness of the written word, to delight in Niequist’s essays on life, friendship and food, to be touched to the core by Nouwen’s wise, insightful counsel that seems meant just for me.

Words. Words of life, words of hope, words spoken by friends, words penned by strangers and set to music or placed in print.

Words all used by God.

I’m taking them in again—in part due to an infected tooth—and I am so immensely grateful.

The Worthwhile Lessons of March

Sometimes, grace takes time.

Often, it’s the prayers of God’s people that somehow, quite mysteriously, allow me to taste of His grace.

But always, the Source of grace is Jesus.

These, in a nutshell, are the most worthwhile things I’ve been learning of late. In fact, the latter half of February and the entire month of March have given me repeated lessons in these truths, and to be honest, I’m a long way from mastery of the material.

While the details of my story are still too deeply painful and too profoundly personal to share here on the blog, I feel compelled to give just a hint of the ways God has been at work in my heart and soul.

My 94-year old mom died toward the end of February, not unexpectedly but still somewhat suddenly. And since my nature is to engage in all the “coulda, woulda, shouldas” I can possibly find, I’ve basically been putting myself through much torment.

The prayers of dear friends upheld me in the days following my mom’s passing, and in some incomprehensible way I can say that yes, I operated in God’s grace despite the inner turmoil. In the aftermath of it all, though, I have agonized over details that just wouldn’t let me go—or perhaps better said, details that I have been holding onto with all my might—and the result has been unbearable pain, pain even now intensified by memories of my baby daughter’s death 16 years ago.  Engulfed in grief, I’ve felt more than once of late that I’m a loser who should just give up on life.

And yet. To my amazement, God’s grace has reached out to me in unexpected ways. A guest pastor pointed right at me (really!) when he said, and I quote, “The grace you are looking for is found only in Jesus.” Over a couple of weeks’ time, friends–and friends of friends–pointed me toward prayer warriors who bathed me in prayer and directed me toward the gentle, loving, accepting presence of the Lord. Slowly, God has helped me ease up on the self-recriminating thoughts and begin to see the many things I did well, the ways I had been a conduit of His love to my failing, fragile mom.

Today’s a good day. Tomorrow may be ridiculously painful again. But I trust that during these coming days of April, as the earth is wrapped in the transforming warmth of the spring sun and as the people who love me continue wrapping me in prayer, God’s grace will pursue me still by reaching into the dark, despairing areas of my soul and bringing renewed life and hope to this heart of mine.

What We Learned in March 2016

Valuing Convergence

061

Lately, I’ve been tethered to the rainforest puzzle that’s covering our kitchen table. For me, there’s a certain thrill in discovering the way the interplay of pattern, shape, and hue reveals how the pieces will fit together, how each connection will contribute to the beauty emerging before my eyes.

Fascination with a different kind of convergence kept both astronomers and novices alike intently peering into the night sky during the month of June, eyes fixed on the rendezvous of Jupiter and Venus as their paths, from an earthly point of view, intersected in deep space. Together they emitted a brilliant light, the kind of light that can capture the attention of the world (and perhaps did so in an earlier celestial event about 2000 years ago).

That’s one thing about convergence. It most definitely draws attention. And for me, it also brightens the eyes of my soul.

At times, it brings me simple delight.

At other times, it speaks meaning to my deep places, calling attention to things of great worth, things my heart needs to hear.

Father Benedict J. Groeshel has written on the topic of how we perceive God and how He beckons us. Some people, he says, are led to the idea of God primarily as Good, while for others it’s God as True that resonates with them.  Some are especially drawn to God as Beautiful. Still others—and I’m definitely one of these folks—have an acute appreciation for God as One, God as the Divine Being who draws everything together in a meaningful way.

Just recently, a dear friend took a trip to Africa, and on that trip all her deepest passions converged. After months of dedicated training, she accomplished the arduous feat of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro—and that not just for the personal thrill but for the cause of raising money for a ministry dear to her heart. She squeezed in a short safari and then spent a few days helping missionary friends in Tanzania to throw a huge wedding celebration for their son.  Ministry, mountains, teamwork, reuniting with old friends while mixing with new ones: she was blessed while she blessed, and she returned exhausted but with a heart full of joy.

Then there’s Shannan Ajluni, a facebook acquaintance who is now having her own experience with convergence in the midst of her fight against breast cancer.  Here’s her description of her interaction with a new breast cancer patient.

“She was very scared, worried, depressed, and was in tears. She needed a hug. So, I gave her one. Turns out, she has breast cancer and was just starting treatment…So, I offered her a hug, and a prayer, and my story… and two other women and the social worker came in and we all offered our stories…Anyhow, she calmed down and thanked me… and then asked if we could talk again tomorrow.”

And thus was born a new breast cancer support group. Shannon is taking one of life’s greatest challenges and letting God use it, redeem it if you will. And in the midst of this, she’s being infused with a tremendous sense of fulfillment as her painful trial and her passion for helping others intersect in an invaluable way.

For most of us, moments of intersection aren’t usually so dramatic, but because convergence touches me so close to the heart, I think God uses it to communicate some important truths to me, sometimes on subjects I may be resisting.

For instance, there’s frequently an overlap between the topics my pastor addresses in his sermons and the topics I encounter in my personal reading of Scripture. Pastor Scott recently spoke on the topic of discipline—as in the idea that God disciplines those He loves. There it was in his sermon on Hebrews 12, and then there it was in my reading of various passages in Proverbs. As usual when this topic is explored, I found myself resistant not so much intellectually as emotionally,

Yet there are occasions when I know that I know that I know that I’ve received a word from God that I need to hear, and this was definitely one such time.

And since this kind of convergence requires my participation, I’m starting to more wholeheartedly embrace a handful of truths and ask a few questions.

Truth: God loves me despite my mistakes. I’m His child and I’m of great worth to Him.

Truth: Sometimes He allows hard things to come into my life for the purpose of making me more like Jesus.

Truth: Seeking Him is of greatest worth.

Questions: In this tough situation, what is it that God wants me to learn?…How can I let Him in and open myself to the work He wants to do in me?…How can I let go of bitterness and anger and instead focus on the multitude of gifts God has showered on my life?

As I ask these questions, I remember that my participation in all this is only possible by His grace.

Grace that gives…equips…sustains…transforms. Grace that transforms even me.

How grateful I am for His divine power that “has given [me] everything I need for a godly life through Him who called [me] by His own glory and goodness.”

How grateful I am that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

How grateful I am that “He who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

I certainly don’t know all the answers. In some areas, I may not even know what direction God will have me go. But I can hold onto these great and precious promises.

And the fact that these promises, along with a multitude of others, can converge on my life even as it all feels unmanageable, can in fact converge on my life simultaneously with the problems and challenges, this gives me hope.

Worthwhile Recipes: Chocolate Swirl Butterscotch Brownies

Rich and chewy lusciousness
Rich and chewy lusciousness. Definitely worth one’s while (though not, of course, if you’re counting calories….)

These brownies are absolutely scrumptious. That’s reason enough for making them. Beyond that, they take all of ten minutes to whip up from scratch and you can do all the mixing in one saucepan. What more could you ask?

Well, there is one other thing. These brownies somehow seem to warm the soul. Somehow, they seem to communicate a bit of comfort and spread a bit of joy. That’s a lot to be said for a brownie.

Simple. Sweet. Soothing to the soul.

What you need:

1/4 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
3/4 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate pieces

What you do:

First, melt 1/2 cup of butter over low heat. Then turn off the heat and stir in 1 cup of brown sugar–either light, dark, or a combination of the two. (Truth be told, the other night I had to turn my pantry upside down to find enough brown sugar, finally combining the remains of three separate bags to come up with one cup. Yikes.)

7.10.15 040 7.10.15 041

Next, add one egg and stir well.

7.10.15 026

Now, throw 3/4 cup of flour, 1 tsp. of baking powder, and 1/2 tsp. of salt together on top of the brown sugar mixture. Mix the dry ingredients together a bit and then stir the entire concoction till everything is nicely blended.

7.10.15 0437.10.15 044

Add 1 tsp. of vanilla, stir well, and then spread the batter in a greased 9″ x 9″ square pan.  Sprinkle the batter with about 1/2 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips.

7.10.15 028 7.10.15 029

Bake for five minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven. Then pull out the rack and run a knife through the batter to create a marbleized effect. (And yes, you can lick the knife afterwards.)

7.10.15 050

Continue baking for about 20 minutes more. Then remove the brownies from the oven and allow them to cool (if you have the patience, which I only sometimes do) before cutting them into squares.

7.10.15 033

These particular brownies accompanied my son and his friends on a road trip to college orientation this week. And what really brought me joy the other day? Watching my daughter whip up a batch in celebration of her friend’s 16th birthday. These really are the all-occasion treat.

Remember the  three “S’es?”

Simple. Sweet. Soothing.

Make that four, because there’s one more: to be shared.

Pouring Out My Heart

Discretion. It’s not exactly a quality I’m known for possessing.

Transparency, yes. Vulnerability, definitely. But discretion, not really.

Lest you think this is going to turn into a “woe is me” kind of piece, though, never fear. That’s not the direction I’m going.

There’s a wonderful word in Spanish, desahogarse, which basically means to let out all that’s troubling you, to get it off your chest. For the sake of sanity, it’s something we all need to do. There’s something infinitely valuable about having a few trusted friends in whom we can confide those things that are causing us turmoil. However, some of us overdo it and blurt out way too much to too many people—and of course, all too often there are undesired consequences.

What God has been impressing on my heart, though, focuses less on my need to conquer this tendency toward indiscretion than my need to replace it with something of much more worth: pouring out my heart to Him.

I’ve been around long enough to take note of a distinct pattern in my life, which is that my times of greatest intimacy with God, and my greatest peace, have been those times in which He has been my Number One Confidant, times when I’ve poured out my heart to Him before–or even instead of—unburdening myself to others.

It makes sense if you think about it. When I share my heart with someone who truly listens, I feel valued and understood. When I pour out my heart to God, the same thing happens, but in a more all-encompassing way.  I’m reminded that the God of the universe is intimately interested in me, that He cares about all that concerns me, that His love for me is deeper and wider and stronger than any other love, and that He’s holding me tight and won’t let me go.

If I’m experiencing this kind of profound affection and acceptance from Him, I’ll be much less apt to let indiscretion take over my conversations with others.

This is not to say that I don’t need to be real with those around me. God made us for relationships and authenticity. It’s just that I’m seeing the wisdom of going to Him first with my frustrations, fears, and inadequacies, my concerns about loved ones, my anger with situations or people,  or even, simply, my own sometimes-crazy thoughts.

And when I come before God in honesty, pouring out the hurt and pain and loneliness and fear and frustration, the channels are opened for me to receive His healing. I love how Ruth Myers puts it in 31 Days of Praise: “When my heart is overwhelmed, I’m more aware of my need to cry to You…to take refuge in You…to rely on You…Thank You for the ways that my shortcomings and failures bring pressure on me to open myself to You more fully, and the way they let You show me deep and hidden needs: griefs and hurts that I’ve never poured out before You, that I’ve never exposed to your healing touch, and sins that I’ve never faced and acknowledged.”

“…pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge.” –Psalm 62:8

If He tells us to do this, it’s totally a worthwhile thing.

And just maybe, as I turn first to Him, discretion will gradually become part of my make-up.

Pursuing Kindness

Kindness has many faces, many forms, but essentially kindness is love in action.

What is always true of kindness is that it touches hearts and communicates worth.

And when my family filled out little notes for my mom this past Mother’s Day, thanking her for the many ways she has touched our lives, I realized that we were basically thanking her for a world of kindnesses.

Thank you, Grandma, for staying home and decorating the Christmas tree with me while everyone else went to the soccer tournament.

Thank you, Mom, for rubbing my legs at night when I had those horrid growing pains as a kid.

Thank you, Grandma, for fixing me grilled cheese sandwiches and lemonade.

Thank you, Mom, for pulling Chloe in that little red wagon, doing lap after lap around the hem-onc floor at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Thank you, Grandma, for reading me my favorite books when I was little.

Thank you, Mom, for teaching me to drive stick.

Thank you, Mom (this from my brother), for loving my pets as if they were your own kids.

Of course, I’m doubly blessed, because I have my birth mother as well. She’s treated us to all sorts of fun things, but more than that, she too is a model of someone who practices kindness by visiting friends who are ill or in need, taking chicken soup or other goodies to those who need a boost for their bodies or souls, and generously sharing her many talents in photography and gardening.

Kindness.

It’s what John in his letters tells us is so integral to authentic faith, what he says shows the world the truth of who God is.

It’s what reminds the people around us that there’s a God who loves them. And don’t we all need to be reminded of that enduring truth?

Yet it can be easy to fall into habits of harsh words or bitter, critical spirits.

It can be hard to be the sort of person I aspire to be, someone who lovingly seeks to refresh the souls of those around me with a word of encouragement, a smile, or a kind deed.

Yet God….Yet God showed His love for us by embracing us at our worst, when He of all beings could have simply resorted to anger and criticism. And He tells me to be strong not in my own goodness or kindness but rather to be strong in His grace, trusting that the One who is kind beyond all measure will fill me to overflowing with that same lovingkindness.

And so I take a few steps. I smile because I know He is good and because my family needs the warmth of my smile. I do little things like fold clothes that someone else left in the dryer simply because I want to bless my loved ones. And I pray that God will open my eyes to ways in which to not necessarily do more but be more–be more thoughtful, gentle, considerate. I do this not because I’m avoiding the teaching of responsibility but because I want my family to know that they have worth, worth in my eyes and in the eyes of the God who loves them.

Embracing Worth

When 2015 came along, I thought I’d try something new and ask God to impress upon me one word for the year, one simple word that might help focus my scattered interactions with Him and His Word, one simple word that might serve as a kind of Adderall for my soul.

Worth was the word that most resonated with me. The more I pondered it, the more I sensed a yearning to pursue and treasure the things of greatest worth in God’s economy.

I longed to experience a deeper awareness of my own worth in God’s eyes rather than fall victim to the self-deprecating thoughts that tended to harangue my mind.

I wanted to cultivate more loving ways to affirm the worth of those around me rather than allow bitterness, irritability, or apathy to control my attitudes and actions.

And I hoped to invest in more activities of eternal value rather than take the passive route by wasting time on mundane pursuits.

All this began last January, and here it is June. While my journal offers proof that I’ve at least thought about things of worth, there’s really little fruit. To be honest, in these last two months I completely forgot about that concept of worth. My ADHD of the soul has been out of control.

So I tell myself that perseverance is of great worth in God’s economy, that it’s time to start taking that little pill once again, time to once again be intentional about this.

It’s time to reconsider and re-embrace the concept of worth.

This time, though, I’m going to try sharing my journey. While I realize that the blogging world is being overrun by folks doing much the same thing, and chances are that few people will ever read these words, I also know that it’s the process that matters. Cultivating, creating, communicating with even a few people–there’s joy in that–and how much more if this helps me to focus on–and lay hold of–a little more of God’s grace while seeking what’s of worth in His eyes.