Cleaning Up the Clutter

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The area around our fire pit is a bit of a mess. Like, you could lose a small child in there mess. The logs and kindling are semi-stacked/falling to one side. A picnic table sits at one end, its boards crumbling with age. The patio is, well–a little uneven would be a charitable way to put it. We put the stone down ourselves, and straight and flat are not our strong suits.

We’re creatives here, not engineers. Don’t judge.

Last year, I worked hard to pull all the weeds that grow up between the logs and around the table. They were big. Thistles, pokeberries, bindweed—all of it went into the compost.

Then we went on vacation. And after two weeks, we returned to weeds so high they were over my head.

I am not even joking. Jesus please help if we ever forget to weed for over a month. They may never find us.

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Jesus’ story of the soils. We’ve covered the hard soil that refuses to be vulnerable and so never allows others to affect their lives.

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the rocky soil that refuses to commit and so stays shallow, never allowing Jesus to get in and make changes.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

Now, the weedy soil.

“Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants.”

I’m preaching an entire Advent series on distractions. Clutter. Those things in our lives that do exactly what these weeds do—crowd out the tender, beautiful things of God that are supposed to grow in our lives.

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” (Matthew 13)

Is your heart distracted or focused?

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Sometimes, I fear I have a thorny heart. There are so many other options. So many things get the resources that the seeds God plants in my heart need. He offers me the abundant resources of time, money, gifts, talents, people, things, and feelings. (Yes, they are abundant. Whether we believe it or not.) Too often, I squander those wonderful gifts on the things that should be lower on the priorities list.

Time? Booked.

Money? Budgeted.

Talents? Overextended.

Feelings? Already overloaded.

We get so distracted by competing priorities we don’t even notice the tiny plants God has sown into our lives struggling for their share of sun and rain. We’re too busy.

These priorities aren’t always bad, of course. Kids sports are good for them. Grades matter. Work requires our best. Entertainment is needed after a tough day of work, and paying bills, well, things can get a little dicey if we don’t.

The problem isn’t that we are committed to bad things. The problem is that we aren’t committed to the best thing first. When priorities compete, the biggest, loudest, strongest get the most attention. The weeds win. If I didn’t weed my garden, the weeds would always win. The same is true in our lives.

We’re always attracted to the shiny, the attention-seekers. The thing is, God’s kingdom isn’t usually shiny and loud. It’s usually quiet. It’s everyday. it’s about showing up and keeping on, and that can’t compete with the things that promise us all we’ve ever wanted.

The promise is:

We’ll be good parents if our kids are busy and get to do all the things other kids do.

We’ll be secure if we work enough to have a cushion in the bank.

We’ll be liked if we know all the shows and all the music and all the Facebook news everyone else does.

We’ll be important if we look busy.

We need to do a prairie burn of our lives so that good things get first crack at the sunshine.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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If we seek everything else first and then hope there will be room for the kingdom in our lives? We’re going to harvest thorns. We won’t even be able to find God in all the clutter. But if we seek the kingdom first? Jesus says he will add all the important things we truly need.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6.33)

Everything. That we need.

Do you know what the tragic result is from all of our busyness and distraction? Did you notice that last line of the story?

“No fruit is produced.”

Fruit is the good story we tell with our lives. It’s all about the fruit. That’s the reason God left us here instead of winging us up out of this craziness the moment we got saved. We’re here to produce fruit. And distracted people don’t. It’s so clear in Jesus’ words that it’s tragic.

I think this may be the most common soil of all of them, which means I may be guilty. The world is so distracting and the kingdom so quiet.

Maybe these questions sounds familiar to you:

Why aren’t I joyful?

Why don’t I feel content?

Why are my finances always a mess?

Why is my schedule always nuts?

Why is life so hard?

It could be the answer to all of them is the same—we’ve let the weeds choke out the goodness and simplicity of the kingdom. We’ve made God’s good seeds compete, and they are losing.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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What do you need to weed out of your life? What do you need to focus on? Christmas and a new year are good times to get quiet, look at or priorities, and ask ourselves—am I seeking first the kingdom of God? Does it look like I am when I look at my list of activities? What seeds Is God trying to plant in my heart, and what is it going to take to give them some air and sunshine?

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

We can’t tell a good story with a cluttered life. Decluttering our hearts brings out our best story.

Going Deep

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Last week, we began talking about Jesus’ story of the soils. It’s part of a series on Jesus’ stories and how to be good storytellers with out lives. You can read the intro here.

The basic idea is this:

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

More than anything, it seems, people want to tell good stories with their lives. So shouldn’t we want to hear the stories of the one who most people agree was the best at that? I do.

Jesus told his listeners about a farmer who tossed seed around—some on a hard path, some on rocky soil, some amid weeds, and some on good, fertile soil. This week, let’s talk a little about those rocks.

“Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock.”

You can guess what’s going to happen here, right?

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We have a bare spot in our garden, right along the driveway. Every so often, I decide to put a plant there. I shove the transplant spade into the dirt. And it stops, abruptly. Under that bare spot is a slab of rock, not an inch and a half down. I always forget it’s there. But the shovel reminds me with its jolt, and I know I cannot plant anything in that place. It’s roots will never grow deep enough to survive, especially in the dry, tree-root ridden soil along our driveway.

Rocks are not usually conducive for growth. The only things that grow among rocks are small plants that don’t have much for roots. (I know—things with giant taproots do as well—but that’s another theological truism.)

The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. (Matthew 13.20-21)

Shallow Soil Produces a Shallow Story

I have known so many of these people. They react immediately to hearing inspirational messages. They are all in. The emotional high grabs them, and they want to spring up and sign up as God’s right hand, right now.

Then life happens. The heat gets turned up. The high is gone, and life returns to so very . . . normal. I start to hear things like,“That’s not what I signed up for.” “I didn’t expect this.” “Well, God’s not working for me anymore.”

God ends up like a fire alarm in the hallway of their lives—pull in case of emergency, but otherwise, he stays behind the glass.

The ones whose faith lands on rocky soil never develop deep roots.

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Is your heart shallow or deep?

To tell a good story with our lives, we need deep hearts.

A story without depth is boring. If a plotline never gets beyond small demands and low risk, who really wants to read it? Who’s going to option the movie rights on the tale that never embroils its hero in anything interesting?

If Frodo just FedExed the ring to Mordor, no one would care.

The story happens in the difficult moments. Characters are created in the hot sun. When drought hits, we know which people we want to watch until the end.

The ones who have shown depth of heart.

The kingdom of God thrums a heartbeat of deep, messy, thoughtful life. The ones who see the demands, the depth, and then opt out have forfeited the opportunity to grow deep hearts.

I know that choice. It’s tempting to look at the heartbeat of the kingdom and think, “That’s too much. That passion would ask more than I can give. Feeling the things that break Jesus’ heart could break mine. Pull back. Pull back.”

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I made that choice long enough, settling for rocky soil and a heart that went to a certain level and no farther. Then, Jesus forced me to see with his eyes.

What do you see when you get eye to eye with a lonely elderly person? When you visit an addict in the hospital? When you listen to an immigrant or refugee tell her story? When you really get a look at hurricane devastation on an island unable to recover for itself? I know what you see.

You see Jesus looking back. You see yourself in a way you’ve never seen you. And you like it.

Because here’s the thing—we’re created to be more than skin deep. There’s a cost to skating the surface. It seems easier — we’re too busy. Too overwhelmed. Remaining shallow-hearted is survival, that’s all.

But the cost is our soul. Deep hearts are real hearts. Broken hearts are alive.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

What will you risk this week to grow deep?

Plowing Up the Hard Road

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I LOVE sunflowers. But I have an issue with them. Every time I plant sunflower seeds in our yard, I get nothing. No sprouts. No flowers. Nada. I put those things all over the place, but it doesn’t matter. I plant many other seeds quite successfully, but sunflowers don’t care. Absolutely nothing has come out of the ground when I plant sunflowers seeds at any time in the history of sunflowers.

Here’s the issue—when my husband plants them, those things jump out of the ground. We have a bounty of sunflowers. I don’t do anything differently. But I can’t grow sunflowers to save my life. I need to stay married if only to have a source of sunflowers in my world.

Even a good seed sower can have problems with uncooperative soil.

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Last week, we talked about how good stories change us for the better so that changed people can tell good stories with their lives. When Jesus laid down that idea, he began with a story to illustrate that very thing. It’s what we call the Parable of the Soils.

TLDR version: A farmer planted some seeds. He wasn’t very discriminatory about the way he planted them or where they fell. This was actually not too far off from current farming practices for Jesus’ time. Or he just had really bad aim. Whatever.

Some of the seeds landed on the road, where birds ate those babies right up. (I imagine starlings or blackbirds, because those things scarf seeds at my feeder like there will be a worldwide seed shortage within the next hour.) Starlings and blackbirds are also rather nondiscriminatory when it comes to eating.

Some ended up in the middle of rocks, and some dropped in the weeds. Rocks aren’t very fertile soil when the drought hits, and weeds . . . well, as a gardener, I know how fast weeds grow. Crazy fast. Either way, the good seed doesn’t fare well.

And some fell in soil that was juuuust right and grew big and strong.

It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears for farmers.

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Of course, Jesus was talking about our hearts, not basic dirt. What kind of heart will produce big, strong, plentiful crops from the story seeds he offers?

Spoiler: It’s not the first three.

“Some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them.”

The footpath has had years to be packed down into toughness. The more it’s been walked over, the more unyielding it’s gotten. Every step has made it harder, every day has tamped it down just a little bit more. It’s hard.

Maybe you know someone like that.

The hard, hard road doesn’t feel the need to give way for seeds. It doesn’t bend. It knows what it wants to accept, and anything else bounces off into the ditch of indifference.

Hard roads don’t want to hear anything that challenges their assumptions or threatens to change their minds. That stuff gets bounced right out. They have their rules; they know what’s what. Getting soft only creates people who compromise.

It just gets you hurt.

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Yet Jesus has no use for the hard roads. He knows no true kingdom values will grow there. Not until they are tilled up, plowed and furrowed and deeply dug to allow new seed to grow. 

Hard soiled hearts have to break in so many places to allow them to be vulnerable to the seed and sun and rain God has for them.

We cannot tell good stories unless we’re willing to face our hardness.

As a kid, I responded to being an actual, real-life Ferdinand (the bull who preferred to sit alone and smell flowers) with deep cynicism and sarcasm. Oh yes, you’d better believe I could do sarcasm as an eight-year-old. I didn’t get this good without years of practice. Also, I learned years later the secrets of the INFJ door slam. (“It’s been said that when INFJs get hurt or angry, they don’t hate you, they nothing you.”) 

I pushed others away before they could declare me too weird for words and push me away. Rejection as as preemptive social strike. I wasn’t very big or very popular, but I was strategic enough to know good warfare tactics.

Except human community is not built on warfare models.

When I started to face the reasons I lacked friends, the reasons behind why I reacted defensively and rejected others first, I began to heal and dip my toes in the open water of vulnerability. I learned to go first in bridge-building. I discovered that other people were just as afraid as I was. I allowed others to see between the chain mail loops about my heart.

I got hurt. But it didn’t kill me, and I found it was better than being hard.

Jesus’ words can’t enter a heart that’s defending itself from invasion. His pleas that we put others above ourselves, show mercy as our default, forgive completely, ask forgiveness, and start over—they can’t find fertile ground in hard hearts that won’t yield to the soft foot of understanding. We have no worthwhile story to tell without vulnerable hearts.

Go ahead. Plow up the ground. Face those things that scare you about letting others in. They won’t kill you. I promise that you’re tougher than that. I also promise that the relationships you will gain, the changes he will make in you, are so very much worth the scary bit. Stop hardening up. Plow deep. Allow him to plant seeds for a story that’s unique to you.

You’re a great storyteller in the making.

Baby Christ Grew Up–Will We?

Jesus is born. Christmas is over. Some people are already posting pictures of their treeless living rooms and spotless kitchens, devoid of any remembrance of Christmas. Some people will not post a picture of their living rom for another three months because they know the garlands are still up and they do not want to deal with haters. Whatever works.
 
I’m not quite ready to give Christmas up yet. But I do wonder about the aftermath. Not mine, but His. I do imagine what happened after the stable was empty and the shepherds and magi had all gone home. What then?
 
The Bible gives us a few hints. Jesus was sought after—in order to kill him. Already, before he could walk, someone wanted him dead. His family ran to another country to be safe. That’s certainly a familiar story to anyone who pays attention to the news this year.
 
The glass bubble didn’t last long.

Jesus’ first five years were not the idyllic preschool romps through the countryside we imagine. They were filled with fear and danger. Within months, the world (and the devil) knew there was a new power in the world intent on turning our feeble ideas of power upside down and endangering our notions of what we deserve. Anyone intent on that becomes endangered himself.

 
Often, we ask ourselves the question, “What next after Christmas?” We remember the slightly depressed feeling we got as children, looking around at all the loot a week later, and wondering, “Is that it?” As adults, we do the same. We look around at all the carnage of wrapping paper, boxes that need to be refilled with decorations, and the reality check of our credit card bill, and we wonder, “Is that it?”
 
It is, if we never look beyond the baby in the manger. It’s time now to look at what happens next. It gives us an excellent clue as to what should happen next for us. 

Is this it? No—there is a whole lot more. But it involves danger and fear and confronting power that does not enjoy being confronted. It could get messy. Even messier than childbirth in a stable.
 

This is not comfortable to think about the week after Christmas. We prefer to keep the cuddly baby. Who wouldn’t?

 

But when we pack him away, don’t we want to know if it mattered at all? Doesn’t something nudge us to wonder if there’s a point beyond shiny paper and jingling bells? And even if we’re Christians who do believe there is, is there anything in our lives that demonstrates we know the grown up Jesus? That we’ve looked deeply at the aftermath for that baby and we’ve signed on to what it means?  

So let’s move into it in the coming year. What happens next? What does Christmas move into? Does what happens to baby Jesus have anything to say about what should happen to us? Let’s discover that together in 2016. I’d love to hear your discoveries.

Getting Friendship Backward–What Really Goes First?

Community is the word for October. In that spirit, I’ve invited a friend Andrea Stunz to guest blog today. She has a great message about community, friendship, and being totally honest with ourselves. I love it, and I’m sure you will, too.

Live in true devotion to one another, loving each other as sisters and brothers. Be first to honor others by putting them first. Romans 12:10 (The Voice)
Friends don’t care how old you are.

I’ve gotten it backwards for a whole lotta years. Not on purpose but out of just not knowing how to do it right. Not being taught. I do selfish very well. Too well. Don’t we all? I’m just shy of 50 years old and I think God may finally be getting through to me and helping me understand how this whole friend thing works.

First, you have to be a friend. Then you get to have a friend.
Ahhhhh….. soooo….. Well, I’ve been trying that out and guess what? It’s working!
But it’s not easy for this control freak.
I’m putting myself out there more and with a different outlook. I’m trying new things. I’m risking.That’s the hardest part. Risk. Being vulnerable. Knowing that if I truly let myself be a friend to have a friend it might hurt at some point. Knowing that it will most definitely hurt at some point. I don’t like that part. The hardest part for me in all of this relationship business is being willing to be hurt. Because it will happen. Even by those who aren’t supposed to hurt me. They aren’t God. God is the only “person” who will never disappoint me.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ~C.S. Lewis
Somewhere along the way I decided that risking heart exposure wasn’t worth the pain. What I’m finally learning is that risk is not always worth it but it is sometimes worth it. Love is costly, but anything of value costs. Being willing to be broken is also being willing to accept redemption.
If I let myself be a friend and have a friend then it might just might turn out okay or even better than okay. It might actually be great!
Or how crazy you are.

The thing with friendship is that we can have a lot of them but not all of them have to be bff’s. If we follow the model of Jesus, he had a three “bff’s” in his inner circle. Three that he went all in with. Three that he shared his guts with. Then his circles broadened. As his circles broadened so did the amount of information he shared with them. Not because he didn’t want to but because those he would be sharing with couldn’t handle it or wouldn’t receive it.

I am coming to realize that those who can’t handle me don’t deserve me. That may sound harsh, but this control freak has to have some boundaries. I can still love and share Jesus and share my life with everyone but I don’t have to share my guts with everyone. We’ve told our kids countless times that you don’t have to be friends with everyone but you do have to be friendly. I’ve got friendly down. I’m working on being a friend. Got trust issues? I do! My trust issues include trusting God enough to put people in my life whom I can trust. Then, the onus is on me that once he does that to not squander it. I have to trust and try. Once the loneliness gets lonely enough, we’ll either choose to move out of it or resolve to stay in it. I’m finally in the place where I’m choosing to move out of it.
Relationships are messy and what I’m coming to learn (not having arrived just yet but learning) is that messy = living and living = messy. I’ve gone far too long without really living and then getting all upset because no one else was helping me live it. Ridiculous, right? But it’s true and ridiculous and I’m tired of not living. Life is so much better when it’s lived.
“In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
There will be strong and unfriendly winds that will make a mess of our lives. On those blustery days, the kindness, prayers, and simple-but-profound ministry of the presence of dear friends will be the anchor to our unraveling, the rescue to our storm.  ~Dr. Leslie Parrott

Those kinds of friends are few and far between. I have a few of those and they know my mess and love me anyway and come to my rescue. Some have known my mess and chosen not to love me and that hurts but there’s nothing I can do about that now. Somewhere along the way I got in my head that people were just supposed to know when I was hurting and miraculously come to my rescue. What I’m realizing now is that I have to let them in. I have to take the risk. The power of the lies of thinking I need control and not trusting because it hurts are a relationship killer. Somewhere along the way I got in my head that if I shared too much or exposed myself they wouldn’t stick around. But now I know that if they don’t stick around then one of us still has work to do. I can’t fix them but I can work on fixing me. I need to be careful and have some boundaries but isolation is not where it’s at.

Remember we were meant to be in community. Don’t isolate yourself. Insulate your heart but don’t isolate your body. ~Patsy Clairmont
God has been faithful to show me the way. I’ve forced myself to become more involved in a few things at church – which really is not bad at all once I’m there. I’m purposely asking old friends and new friends to lunch or coffee and just letting whatever happens happen. It’s mostly been wonderful. Not easy and not without some anxiety and heart palpitations but wonderful. I also signed up to get some email tips from (in)Courage on “how to be the friend you wished you had.” God is lovingly but clearly telling me that I need to figure out how to be a friend before I can have a friend. I’m getting it. Slowly, but I am.
So in all of this, I’m still learning. I’m still growing. I have not arrived. I’m trying to be brave. I’m willing to risk. I think…
God help me. Amen.
~Andrea
“I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.” ~Maya Angelou

Andrea is: “A homemaker, a traveler, a seeker, a writer, a pilgrim. I love cooking and sharing good food with others who love good food. I take pictures that tell a story, my story, God’s story. An almost empty nester. A fellow struggler. A fellow stumbler. In need of God’s grace. Oh, and coffee. Grace and coffee. Then I’m good. Oh, and a sunrise. Grace, coffee and a sunrise. THEN I’m good. Oh, and my grandson. Grace, coffee, a sunrise and my grandson. … you get the picture. 🙂 I have many favorite scriptures but my “go to” scripture which seems to encompass all I may be stumbling through or rejoicing in is always this: “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17

This was originally published on Andrea’s blog, here. Check out the rest of her writing while you’re there!

Community: You Keep Using that Word


Is community a game of risk?
As you might know, I’m working on a book. Rather, we’re working on a book. (We as in two of us, together.) Just Hear Me Out: Conversations in the Generation Gap. And you can find out all about it here. (We have a fun video!)

It is, as the name implies, a conversation. About church, faith, leadership, and all the messy bits in between that cause generations to argue and be general turkeys rather than work together. About what we value, envision, and fear as different generations. One of those recurrent themes is community.

Conveniently, community is also my blog theme for October. So today, I thought we’d run with an excerpt from the book.

Community—You keep using that word.


Emily (the Millennial):What do we value in church? Community, first-off. We want to be accepted as we are, which can be good and bad. Everyone wants a community they can belong to, though. We just need to make it clear that this is a community that goes both ways, and that while we accept everyone, we also push everyone to look at issues in their lives.

Or full of loaded questions?

Jill (The Baby Boomer): Community may be your new buzzword. Yet almost all the Boomers we talked to for this book also cited community as an important value in church. Everyone wants that family feeling. But if you’re not feeling it, either we’re doing it wrong, or we don’t mean the same thing by that word. One difference is that when we Boomers talk about loyalty to a church body, we are also talking community. The two are not separable to us. The church we are inisour community. It’s the same word you use—but it means something subtly different.


Emily:Like what?

Cheers for Friends


Jill:Companionship, social events, comfort, friendship, welcome. These are all mentioned as important church considerations to the Boomer generation. Basically, I think we all hope to find our best friend at church. We all hope to fit in there and find people we can be like, talk to easily, and rely on in times of need.

We still operate under smaller circles of interaction than you do. Yes, we are on Facebook, but we don’t really have the global “families” that you do. Ours are closer to home. We still look to our nearest outlets for friends and companionship. The family comes first. Work is often second. Somewhere in there, the church is a consideration, especially if the family doesn’t work out the way we had hoped. And when we go there, we seek an atmosphere like that iconic TV show of the 80’s, Cheers—a place where everybody knows your name.

Your generation found the same thing in Friends. The difference was, in Cheers, they still went home to family in the end. In Friends, those people were the family. A not so subtle shift.

Does just trying feel like a trivial pursuit?

Emily: The concept behind Friends is independence and community outside of immediate family–a building of a chosen family. It’s odd that the show is called Friends, then, instead of family. Perhaps it’s because all of the main characters have messed up relationships with their actual family, and so the Central Perk regulars decide to hold Friendship up to a higher standard than their memories with Family.


Jill: But knowing one another’s name isn’t the same as knowing them. Most Boomers, like Millennials, say that they yearn for a place to be real, to tell the truth and be accepted with their messy lives. But again, you aren’t getting that vibe from us. Truth is, I don’t either, so something is clearly more important to Boomers than the genuineness we claim to want as much as you do.

Safety versus Authenticity


And something is. We value safety. We value looking good and presenting a stoic front over being vulnerable. Where you find it safe to be among peers telling true tales, we find it safe to pull in privately and keep our stories to ourselves. That’s changing, between pressure from our kids (you guys) and simply being sick and tired of the whole false front game.

Or maybe we just don’t have a clue.
In a larger worldview, where your response to a frightening, unpredictable world is to say “What the heck, let’s go kayak a waterfall, it’s all the same,” ours was to wall ourselves off and play Risk with our lives, strategizing political and social moves to protect our territory (while preferably expanding it). So those values of authenticity and community? We like the sound of them, but we want to define the terms.

Emily: As a Risk enthusiast, may I just say this is game usually ends in multiple people upset and one winner lording it over everyone else. Until the next game. When everyone gangs up on the last winner and distrusts any alliances formed.

Jill: Community and authenticity. Two hallmark values of your generation. Two words we want to love but pull back from. Where are we going to come together, then, in faith and doing church if we can’t agree on the definition of these terms?

And bonus–our favorite community-inducing
board game. You’ll get to know each other.
Fast.

Spoilers? No, we are not going to give them to you. What do you think the answers to that question are? I would love your input, your definitions, your experiences with community and faith.  

And . . . If you’d like to be part of the ongoing research/launch/fun team for the project, find me on facebook and talk to me.

(Don’t) Clean up Your Mess

Hey, what’s wrong with messes? We look great, right?

The more I live with people instead of just coexisting in proximity, the more I recognize something—there are a of of messed up people out there. Even more messed up than I am. Yes, true story.

The other thing I’ve come to recognize is that being messed up is not necessarily a bad thing. Neat lives are often a sign of lives so carefully curated that they are museum dioramas, not lives. And the thing about museum dioramas? They’re full of dead things. Stuffed dead things. This is not appealing to most of us as an environment.
A little bit of mess signals a life that’s lived in, like a couch with graham cracker crumbs welded to the underside of the cushions. That life has taken risks, known joy, and has the stains to prove it. Some messes are dangerous, toxic spills that needs to be cleaned up out of our lives. But others? We need them to prove we’re alive.
I never wanted or imagined the mess of a loved one with mental illness and attendant self-destructive behavior. Given the choice, I’d have picked the carefully curated life. Having chosen that, I would have missed out on a lot that has made me alive.
I had no idea I was living amid dead things.
Sometimes messes just mean something better is coming.

Because of that experience, I’ve been able to share a lot with people whose lives are broken in various ways, and similar variations on a theme keep returning. It’s hard. It hurts. But we have learned so much. When you’re in the slime and mud of the mess, though, you really want to know what exactly people have learned. What could possibly make this worthwhile? What could anyone tell me to make me appreciate this wrenching time of uncertainty?

I’m not sure. I suspect that when people are slogging through those times is not always the best opportunity to offer sage advice. Most of us aren’t ready to hear it when the pain is shrieking louder than the wisdom. But people ask. What do you find out about life, and yourself, when your world is a mess? How do you even survive?
The answer to the second question is easy: God’s grace and insistent love. Nothing more or less.
The answer to the first could go on a while. But here are a few thoughts.

I learned that grace was a choice I didn’t make often enough. 

I had theoretically believed in grace, but operationally, I extended it mostly to those who didn’t look like they needed it. For those with rough edges and incomprehensible, annoying behavior? Maybe when they got themselves together. My reality of grace was not even close to God’s dream of it for me. I had no idea that grace looked a lot more like hugging a drug addict than praying for lunch at Panera.
Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.” (Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday)


I never understood that before. I didn’t really want to. Now, I don’t want anything else.

I learned that love is always a good thing to decide. 

You might get hurt. You will be taken advantage of. But love reserved for those who deserve it and won’t tamper with it is not love at all. It’s a calculated investment. CS Lewis said, To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”
I didn’t understand that until I had to choose to love not only my loved one in a mess but the people it brought into our lives. It seemed God put them there despite what I wanted, so the only real choice was to love them. And they did, indeed, break my heart. But broken hearts are the best kind for letting others inside.   . God’s dream for me was to lavish unconditional love, as He did. My reality had been fearful half loving.

I learned to honestly believe that He loves us. 

He loves our messes. Really.
He can handle them.

Driving with a loved one to a potential prison sentence is about as messy as it gets. Until in the middle of praying you hear those words on the radio, “If His grace is an ocean we’re all sinking; oh, how He loves us so.” And you realize for perhaps the first, or at least the most profound, time that they are true. Not just for you but for the person sitting next to you. And all those other persons out there who have messes in their lives and need that grace like an ocean. He loves. Beyond our imagination.

He takes care of the messes, beyond our imagination. All the worries and terrors and anxieties about them do nothing helpful, while putting the mess in His hands and leaving it there always does. Because He Loves are the most needed and true words you will ever hear, and they are bedrock when life feels more like a mudslide than a picnic.
I don’t know if you’re feeling messy right now, and I don’t know if it helps to be told those things. Maybe you have to learn them yourself in the fire. I think, though, that at least it helps to know someone else has been in that mess, and it has not won.
Something better is still coming.
We still have not finished this mess.

Have you seen the sign some people hang in their kitchen that reads “God Bless This Mess”? Yeah. That’s about right. Ask Him to. He will.