Becoming a Lifelong Learner

God tells us that when our hearts long to discover more, he offers it—open hands, crazy abundant, as far as we allow the current to take us.

Twenty years ago, I walked an indoor track with a woman from my church. Dotsey was an older, wiser soul with whom I had formed a friendship and from whom I had learned much. She told me, “I’m taking Chinese courses at the local community college. I love learning. God just keeps teaching me new things all the time!”

I thought (to myself, mind you), I hope by the time I get as old as you I’m done having to learn things!

Since then, I’ve revised both my desire to learn and my notion of what “old” means.

To finish reading this post and discover what God has to say about learning, click over to The Glorious Table!

Thanks for All the Fish

Since we’re running a few gardening-related posts (of course we are), I thought I’d bring back some of my favorites as well. Anytime I talk about an encounter with Jesus it’s a favorite, because that’s the best possible things to have happen. Even when, as this person finds out, it leaves you a little scared, and a lot wet.

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I am a gardener, but a haphazard one at best. I forget where I plant things and what I already bought. I dig up seeds my husband has planted that I didn’t know about. I plant and replant the same spots, with little patience to ensure success.

Last year, I threw some cutting flower seeds in a circular patch that had been a dumping ground for weeds, cardboard, and old stalks. I didn’t expect much. I hadn’t put much into it.

The ensuing display of orange zinnias, blue cornflowers, and yellow marigolds lit up the side yard for months. Their exorbitance only exacerbated my lack of effort.

I received a huge bonus for minimal exertion, and I felt the joy of it. So I get Peter a little bit in today’s encounter with Jesus.

When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”

“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.

When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.” For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him.

Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus. (Luke 5.4-11)

I know exactly how Peter felt. He had blown it. He knew he had. He knew his attitude hadn’t been grateful or trusting or anything approximating appropriate about the whole re-fishing gig. He knew Jesus blessed him anyway. And he fell on his face in a stunned mix of amazement and repentance.

This Jesus in this encounter takes our little obedience and lavishes boatloads (literally) of goodness on us.

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And just look at how he does it.

He does it despite the probability that it is not possible

There were no fish out there. The experts had certified it. Who would doubt the fishermen’s word that fish were not biting? I wouldn’t. The only fish I’ve ever caught in my life was a tiny sunfish at Girl Scout camp that I caught with an old hook and a bread dough ball. Both my father and my husband attest that fishing and my ability to sit in one spot doing nothing but staring at water do not comingle.

But Jesus blatantly ignores the experts and sends them out anyway. Go fish. Because I said so. Because I believe you can find fish if you follow my voice and do what I say. I believe that crazy thing you dream about can happen if you’re in the boat with me.

He does it despite the attitude of the givee

Jesus: Go out and put the nets down for fish again.

Peter: OK, Jesus, we already tried that, but WhatEVER, dude.

Because you know that was exactly the tone of his voice.

And how often has that been my tone when dealing with that hard thing Jesus tells me to do that I just Do. Not. Want. To. Do? OK God, whatever. I’ll do it. But I won’t be Cheery-Dearie while I do. And then . . . the boats are swamped with goodness anyway.

Because he is good.

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He does not, as many armchair theologians would imply, give to us after we have attained a certain grade for righteousness. He does not keep score of how often we have a bad attitude toward obedience. He surprises the churlish among us with kindness. It’s his kindness, after all, that leads to repentance (Romans 2.4). True here with Peter, no? So true.

He does it with an eye toward something more

Along with the fish he offers what is certainly more important and harder to offer unsparingly. He offers forgiveness, patience, and a new purpose.

He wants to call these fishermen, and us, toward something greater than fish. The lavish generosity is about His love and character, to be sure. He gives good gifts simply because He is good. Period.

But it is also about His kingdom and His plans for it. For us. He calls us to head out into the waters of his kingdom, fishing for people’s hearts. Fishing for justice. Fishing for forgiveness. Fishing for sacrifice and healing and love.

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He demonstrates in this one act of generosity that the returns will be mind-boggling.

What does this encounter mean for us?

  • Can’t we love a Jesus who gives because it’s in his nature to give, not because he’s keeping a chart of what we deserve?
  • Can’t we love a Jesus who believes in the seemingly impossible for us?
  • Can’t we love a Jesus who cares so much more about our real calling, what our hearts beat for and our souls ache for, than he does our nine-to-five job? Who gives us free rein to pursue that with all our hearts because that is what defines who we are, not our title or position? (Although yes, we still need a job, because food.)

I can.

Morning Glories Aren’t Glorious (Or: Hindsight Is Hard To Clean up After)

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I have not planted a morning glory seed in my garden for at least twelve years.

You would assume, by that statement, that there are no morning glories in our yard.

You would assume wrong.

They’re Here (said in best Frodo voice)

In fact, every year, morning glories pop up. In the front yard, in the back yard, in the side yard, in all the garden beds. The thing about morning glory vines is, they can be nonexistent one one day and three feet long the next. These things have the growing capacity of mold in an untreated hot tub.

Why? Because we were enticed by the heavenly blue blooms on the seed packets and the ubiquitous Pinterest photos of innocent, stunning morning glories climbing (slithering) up peoples’ mailboxes as if they had no evil intent whatsoever.

I know better now. 

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Enticements come in all kinds of packages. Stunning flowers. Easier money. Better reputation. Upgraded resume. Beautiful bodies.

Those things look so small (like a morning glory seed) in the beginning. They looks so beautiful, helpful, needed even to our unsuspecting (or, let’s be honest, intentionally blinded) hearts and minds. Then one gets it vines into our hearts and souls and minds, and it won’t let go of its grip.

  • Marriages dashed sideways by porn.
  • Careers wrecked by a little embellishment on the job history.
  • Kids in high anxiety because parents padded their abilities in an attempt to make them more competitive.
  • Women devastated because they pursued that relationship, ignoring the red flags, only to learn their intuition was right and they had traded their identity for attention.
  • The remembrance too late that someone did tell us so.
  • Christians offering up their souls for the sham promises of power and security.

Morning glories are everywhere, aren’t they?

I don’t have a deep, profound message today. “Nothing under the sun is truly new,”  right? (Ecclesiastes 1.9) Our task, as I read just last night, isn’t so much to create some brilliant, unique concept that amazes the world as it is to remind the world of what it already knows but has let the quicksand of the world bury for too long.

“A remembrancer is a servant who brings things from the storehouse, a farmer who helps the listener harvest memories previously planted. If you have been shamed into believing that every sermon has to include novel ideas—No. Telling the old, old story stands in the front rank of the preacher’s calling. It is the work of soul-watchers. Our people need reminders of the great truths of the faith. We are like the hobbits who ‘liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions.’” (Preaching as Reminding, Jeffrey Arthurs)

So with today’s reminder—

It’s easier to make the decision not to plant the seeds than it is to root out the weeds.

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Every year, I feel like I may be winning the war against the morning glory seeds, and every year, more come up. I’m sure that’s exactly how my dad felt after he took that first drink to cover his sadness when my mom passed. So many times he thought he had won over it, but it just emerged somewhere else, attacking from another front, and he lost himself again.

The good news is, we can win. With dedication, determination, and a lot of RoundUp, we will eventually eradicate the morning glories. There are fewer every summer. Don’t lose hope if the battle seems impossible. It absolutely IS NOT. We are children of a God who knows how to do resurrection.

Still, it would have been better for us not to have ever entertained the temptation. We could have used our energies in so many other places. We don’t know what could have been had we never succumbed to those tempting photos.

It’s easier never to have planted the seeds.

Change Happens

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While I was spending my time sailing, sunning, and writing pages and pages of thesis proposals that would get rejected and repurposed EVERY OTHER MINUTE in California this June, our front yard got a makeover.

Out with the Old

We called the city because one of the venerable old elm trees in the front yard looked ready to tumble onto our also old (if not equally venerable) house. The trees are technically on city property.

They came. They saw. They said that all three trees were bad and would be meeting the saw blade. (Insert sob emoji here.) A fourth elm sat just inside the property line, and it was in worse shape, so we struck a deal with the contractor to take it down for cheap while he was there.

Upshot—the entire front yard went from shade to full sun in a few hours. I returned home to a driveway I didn’t even recognize.

In with the . . . What?

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I do love light, but unfortunately, my front garden does not. We had planted it as a shade garden and filled it with hostas, coral bells, ferns, and the like. Now, they are baking. Turning yellow and crusty. They are not happy. It’s too hot out there to move them, and so they sit in the sun, as I hope and pray they survive long enough to be set somewhere  more understanding of their needs.

Meanwhile, an interesting thing is occurring in the back yard. There, the trees are growing. The spruce that was as tall as I am (and that’s not very tall) when we moved in now towers over its surroundings. If I wanted to get all mathematical, I’d go out there and measure the hypotenuse and the shadow and tell you exactly how tall it is. But, did I mention it’s hot? And I am not all mathematical as a general rule.

The ornamental pear tree we planted that was supposed to be remain small isn’t. Upshot—things that were planted in full sun, like our rose garden, no longer are. They’re also unhappy about the turn of events.

 

What is my point in all this?

My own back yard tells me that seasons change. Things never remain as planned. What we once thought would be forever isn’t, and what we thought would never be sometimes is. What worked once for us doesn’t work anymore. Usually, we keep trying it anyway, desperately hoping that we will not have to adjust to a new reality.

New Normals

  • Our bodies change or get injured. What was once easy isn’t.
  • Our kids leave home and our marriages turn in toward themselves and find hollow cores where communication and commitment once filled the space.
  • Our kids leave home period, and that’s enough change for any of us who love having their laughter and surprise and support floating through our days.
  • We move from single to two people, from two kids to three, and every addition is a glorious gift but still one we have to adjust to and whose learning curve may be steeper than we think we can climb.
  • We move to a new home, and its exciting and terrifying, adventurous and lonely, all at once.
  • Our faith turns into doubt nibbling away at the corners of our hearts and minds. What were once easy answers don’t come quite so quickly anymore.

Change doesn’t have to be bad to discombobulate our lives. (I love that word.) It just has to be what it is.

Different. New. Unknown.

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It can scorch our days like a July sun or it can shade our nights with extra darkness. It doesn’t matter. It just messes with what we thought we had stable and safe.

If I refuse to adjust to the new normal of our yard, the plants out front will die. They will shrivel and thirst and scorch and wither. They weren’t made for the sun. The plants out back will languish without the light they crave. They, too, will die. They weren’t made for the shade.

If I accept that normal isn’t coming back and I move them? I can create an entire new design out there. I have a chance to start over. I can make beautiful out of a new situation.

Create Beautiful

We can spend our time resisting whatever our new normal is, or we can embrace it. Now, I’m not advocating giving up on something that matters. I wouldn’t hang up my marriage if it changed. I can ( and might) plant a new tree in the front yard. I can opt to fight for those plants and that arrangement, because they’re important. Fighting is an option. It’s one I’d always take if change threatened something that truly mattered.

But, some things have just run their season. It’s time for a new one. Some things are better off for a new season.

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What if, for instance, I embrace this new empty nest that threatens? What if I stop seeing it as a threat? I can sit in my home and mourn the emptiness. (I will, some days.) I can guilt them into not ever moving farther than five miles away. (I have tried.) I can Snapchat my children incessantly until they block me. (I don’t recommend this.)

I can learn new ways to love them like crazy from a distance, pour my heart into other young people here who need someone, and renew career aspirations that have been put aside. I think that may be the better option.

On a larger scale, what if we accepted that “A Christian America” isn’t going to happen? The season of churchgoing as normal is over, and we pastors (and all Christians) have an uphill climb to be relevant or wanted. People aren’t going to beat the door down of my church.

I could demand things go back to the way they were. I could throw up my hands and gnash my teeth about the current state. I could toss blame all over the place and find scapegoats to label and denounce.

I could embrace a different culture and find my way to create God’s image of beauty within it. I know which is the ultimately more productive choice.

What if a new normal has brought something into your life that also brings worry, fear, anxiety, or sadness? How can you grow into that today? How can you look at your new season and find the beauty in it? What do you need to embrace in order to grow in this season rather than wither?

I hope and pray you find it. If I can help, let me know.

When Following Your Passion Feels Like Failure

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I couldn’t explain the tug on my heart to work with refugees and immigrants. I just knew it was there, under the surface, staying strong through the years of raising kids and going to seminary.

But though I downloaded World Relief volunteer applications three times, I never filled them out.

I had those kids, after all. Three busy, zany little girls. Add part-time associate pastoring and a writing career, and – who had time?

The Passion and the Fear (Not a Novel)

Plus, there were the fears. Introvert fears. Some of you understand. I can speak in front of 500 people and barely sweat, but make me do a one-on-one with a stranger? Terror level 5. I am Mrs. Awkward when it comes to thinking of something – anything – to say in conversation. Especially conversation with a stranger who doesn’t know English.

So I left the passion on low burner for years. 

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Until the photo that jarred so many people – the one of the little boy drowned trying to escape unimaginable horror – jarred me, too.

His parents were scared of bombs and gunmen at the door. Then the worst thing that can possibly happen had happened to them – they lost their dearly loved child. Suddenly, my fears seemed pretty feeble, even to my well-rationalized mind.

When I downloaded and filled out that application to volunteer with World Relief though, I found out that finally following my passion wasn’t the straight line I thought it would be.

Sometimes you don’t find your passion on the first try.

I agreed to be a friendship partner for a woman who had been in the US five months. She knew little English, and she rarely left her house except for working the night shift. I went to be her friend, to chat and to help her acclimate to her new normal.

But every week, the same reluctance dragged me down on the drive over. I didn’t love it. Every minute was hard. I was glad when she had to cancel. I tried to teach ESL to another woman. The same thing happened. I was absolutely committed to doing what they needed, but why did I not feel joy over finally following that passion?

Why was I failing at this thing I knew I was called to?

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It’s OK to get it wrong.

What I was doing wrong wasn’t the volunteering or the organization. It was trying to fit into molds that weren’t “me.” I assumed that if I got out there and did it, God would provide me with the love of the job. He’d work his magic and all my awkwardness would disappear. As it happens, God wasn’t really interested in “making” me do something I’m bad at.

I tell my kids there are only a couple decisions that are final: getting pregnant and jumping out of a plane. The rest you can mostly back out of, and it doesn’t make you a terrible person.

It’s so easy to think, “I’ve failed, so I’m done. I was wrong about my calling – the end.”

We convince ourselves that one failure means we won’t ever get it right. And I failed twice. What I found out was that one, or two, failures don’t mean I wasn’t called. It meant I was learning. When I stopped blaming myself for not being good enough or loving enough to make those partnerships work, I could recognize they just weren’t good fits for me.

Something else would be.

It’s OK – it’s imperative for your heart and soul – to try again.

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I found my passion with World Relief completely by accident. I had also signed up as a driver who could bring people to appointments, welcome them at the airport, or, in this case, transport students to and from homework club. The volunteer coordinator told me I could stay at the club and help out or I could go somewhere else until it was time to bring the kids home – my choice. Planning to go and get other work done, I unintentionally ended up staying.

I never left. That first day, I remembered how much I had loved teaching high school and how deeply I connected with teens. These teens were funny, silly, and ambitious, much like most American teens I’ve met. I got hooked on homework club, and it’s where I know now God had planned for me all along.

It’s so tempting to think, in those detours that look so much like absolute failures, we just aren’t in the right place. We were wrong about our passion. We didn’t really understand God’s voice. What I discovered was that sometimes, the failures prepare us for the place we will succeed.

I was learning, in those awkward one-on-one experiences with adult refugees, how to understand their cultures and how to act in a way that respected where they were from. By the time I got to the high school, I could start on easy footing with the kids, unworried that I would culturally misstep because I’d practiced for this, unknowingly. I understood some of their home dynamic because I’d seen it from the inside. My gifts and experience match their needs.

I don’t drive to the high school reluctantly. I go with joy. I found my passion. It just required a few detours first.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog

Six Years. The Opioid Crisis Is Real

It’s been six years, yesterday. Six years since I wrote this piece. It’s an anniversary I’d rather not have, but those choices aren’t always ours. I can’t believe it’s been six.

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I’ll Do Anything, God

My “anything” prayer happened in a credit union lobby, viewing security tapes. The image on the tape was shady, in more ways than one. He wore a hoodie pulled low over his brow, not surprising, since having anyone see his face would have been detrimental to his purpose. The tape was grainy, at best. Still, I could identify the vehicle, and its driver.

 Explaining this all to the security woman at the credit union felt like an out-of-body experience. Surely, this was not my pretty, suburban Jesus life. Yes, I said. I do know who the young man in the tape is using my debit card. Yes, I do know he’s a drug addict and what he’ll do with the money. Yes, I know if I don’t press charges you won’t return the money. No, I still don’t want to press charges.

Her look called both my sanity and my intelligence into question. I just shrugged my shoulders. “I’m a pastor. It’s an occupational hazard. I can’t really explain.”

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I didn’t pray “anything” intentionally. It happened to me the day Casey happened to me, and I might well have told God I had other, more pressing business had I any notion of the rough road ahead. Fortunately, God does not give us those notions. He knows my heart that would probably have embraced the fear and the comfort rather than the strange boy in my back hallway.

So I never offered God everything. But by the time he asked it of me, I could do nothing else. God knows, sometimes, that’s the way we work.

No Turning Back When You Tell God “Anything”

Fortunately for Casey, that shock of overgrown cocoa-colored bangs and those huge brown eyes beneath the ever-present hoodie endeared him to people before they knew him. At least they did to me, a sucker for shy smiles and already well aware of my daughter’s penchant for collecting what we could euphemistically term “the least of these.”

 He had nowhere to go, could he maybe sleep in the basement? OK. I guessed that would be fine. For a while.

Two days later, his mom came knocking on the side door, letting us know the reason he had nowhere to go–she had a restraining order on him, because he had stolen from her, again. The same day one of our mutual friends informed us of his past in detail, containing more interactions with law enforcement than Snoop Dogg. “He’s a loser. He’ll never change. You’re out of your mind if you let him in your house. He’ll take you for everything you have.”

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And he tried. I’d never been called to a bank to review security videos, never had someone steal my debit card and use it to buy gas for ten of his closest friends. Never had police bang on my door at random hours. Never sat at the hospital bed of someone who felt so little hope for life he’d OD on heroin, again.

 He progressed to grand theft auto while we were on vacation. Not the video game. The rage I felt when the gift cards I’d saved points for to give our kids for Christmas turned up missing the week before—from my underwear drawer, which feels relentlessly violating—mixed with the sorrow and desolation of knowing that by this time, I loved this kid.

OK, he was no kid; he was 23. But only chronologically.

When Jesus told me to love the least of these, he wasn’t being rhetorical. He didn’t mean sending money to African orphans to satisfy my conscience or buying a pair of shoes so a needy child could have one, too. Yes, those are good things. I do those things. But until Casey, I didn’t understand that real love takes risks, gets personal, gets hideously, nakely messy. Real love looks a messed up kid in the eye and says, “I’m with you for the long haul. What do we have to do?”And sometimes the crapshot you take with love comes up bust. There is no guarantee.

Every time I thought I had had enough and was ready to turn this kid in and wash my hands, I asked God if I could. Well, I kind of begged him. There were some pretty bad days. And every single time, he said, “No. I am not done with Casey. So neither are you. Anything? Really?”

Holy Spirit Leverage

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 As part of our “I’m not turning you in so now I have some power over you” strategy, we “sentenced” Casey to community service at our church. He met people. They loved him, no holds barred. He came to a few services. He went forward to the altar, trying to start over and get out of the iron-bar-less prison he knew he was still in. He got better; he got worse; he got better. I felt the Spirit moving me to go back downstairs to him one night at 2am, long after I had gone to bed but not to sleep.

“Casey, what’s keeping you from turning your life over to God?”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to give up the fun I’m having.”

“Really? So, this homeless, jail time, drugs gig is fun? How’s that working out for you?”

He shook his head sheepishly. “Yeah. Not so good.”

 He told us no one in twenty-three years had made him feel so loved. Like the security woman, he shook his head at us and said he could not understand why.

 But eventually, he got it. He got that love beyond all human ability comes from Jesus alone. A tiny bit of comprehension seeped in that, maybe, possibly, it wasn’t too late for someone like him. A God who would die for any sin on the books just because he loved us would love him, too. The Recovery Bible got a used look to it.

Eventually, I got it, too. I got that compassion means so much more than a thoughtful email, and mercy is the greatest inexplicable gift someone might get from me. I wrote my senior seminary thesis on grace. But I don’t think I knew it at all until I knew Casey. I know now how amazing grace is not just when its received but when its given. I’ve hugged Jesus in the form of a messed-up, love-bewildered kid. And I’ll never see Him the same.

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Not a Fairytale

You know those stories with bittersweet endings that you hate but know are really more true than the happily ever after ones? This is that kind of story. Casey didn’t make it in this life. He tried hard. He went though recovery and was on the road. But there were too many years of pain and bad choices, and one last time on heroin, after being clean for a while, was the last. I had to find out through Facebook, not the number one choice for devastating your heart.

Sitting looking at the waves of Lake Michigan roll in that week, I cried for the man he might have been and the life that could have been his. But I also cried because I knew, absolutely knew, that at that moment, Casey was looking at Jesus through eyes free of fog. He had no pain, no past, no chains of addiction or scars of abuse. He had no tears of hopelessness or self-hatred. He was free. And I’d never been so happy for someone in my life. Or sad. 

“Anything” prayers may take you no farther than your own back hallway. But they’ll take you much farther than that, once dangerous love sets in.

 

According to our surgeon general’s remarks when I heard him speak this spring, “This is a medical addiction issue, not a moral failure. The only way we’re going to create better opportunities for those we love is by sharing our stories and eliminating the stigma. None of us can do it alone.” Amen. The heroin epidemic is real, and it’s deadly. Someone dies every 12.5 minutes of an opioid overdose. The start of it for someone could be in your own medicine cabinet right now. Please check out some facts and know what you need to know. Don’t lose someone you love.

Aliens and Wives

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A few months ago, we watched the movie “Arrival.” Twelve alien ships hovered over the earth, and the movie’s tagline asked everyone’s question—Why Are They Here?

This was roughly the attitude of the Romans toward the early Christians. They had no idea what to do with these alien people whose thoughts, actions, and values no longer matched their society. Like many others do when confronted with people they don’t understand, the Romans did what history records—they persecuted the different ones.

Peter writes to his churches in this climate, and he offers some controversial instructions to those suffering people—instructions we wrestle with still. In fact, this is the third time this week I’ve wrestled with his instructions to wives, a record even for me, an avowed evangelical feminist pastor.

“In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives.” (1 Peter 3:1-2, NLT.)

What’s the Point?

To find out, see my guest post at Tim Fall’s page. While you’re there, read a few other posts. They’re all good!