Expect Something Different

I have an opinion. And it isn’t very popular, so I need to make sure nobody’s holding any stones before I share it.

Alright, here goes.

I do not like Hallmark movies, Christmas or not. I can’t appreciate them for what they are. I just don’t get it. I end up shouting questions at the screen, wanting answers to plot holes and for someone to tell me who in the world wrote this dialogue.

Maybe there’s something in the predictability, the complete lack of realism. Something about a clean resolution. The guy gets the girl. The girl gets the crown or the promotion or the makeover. The town saves the Christmas pageant. The local diner is spared by the corporate tyrant. The bitter cynic is hopeful again. The problem is solved, and the credits roll.

But here’s what’s lovely about these cheesy flicks: at the end when the screen goes dark, all my expectations have been met. Certainly, I have some questions that have yet to be answered. And certainly, I have a tiny tinge of regret at the time I just lost. But I got what I bargained for. A nice, neat bow on a relatively uncomplicated problem.

Great.

But what happens when those expectations roll over into the flesh and blood reality we live in? What happens when we sit on the edge of our seats this season, eagerly looking for our picture-perfect ending and storybook Christmas?

I wonder if Mary knew anything about unrealistic expectations. Honestly, as many times as we ask her every year, I don’t think Mary knew all the details. From the beginning, we see her fear and we hear her ask, “How will this be?” During the nine months of her pregnancy, surely she had expectations for how the birth story would unfold, and I may be wrong, but I don’t imagine she expected stable animals to be witnesses or grimy shepherds to be her first guests.

And what about those guys? The shepherds. What did they expect? Did they run to the site to which the angels sent them expecting to see a young teenager holding the Messiah they had been waiting for? A simple carpenter standing behind her? The damp smell of the cave in which they lay? Wasn’t Messiah supposed to be royal? What was He doing here? Why did the angels tell them? Shouldn’t there have been a bigger announcement to more prominent men than they? They were Jewish men who knew the prophecies. They knew the words that declared what was to come, but did they yet understand how or when or why? Maybe their expectations had had a little more color. More light. More neat lines and a fine timeline of when exactly their suffering would end. They were only human, after all.

And we can relate, can’t we? Our expectations are often outlined by our circumstances.

So often, we walk into the Christmas season with really high expectations of ourselves, of the people around us, of the celebrations and parties and gifts and food and decorations. We expect things to end neatly like our sweet, pre-packaged Hallmark movies. We expect snow to fall and love stories to have magical beginnings and happy endings. We expect our Christmas cookies to look just like that glossy photo in the magazine, and we sigh with great disappointment when they don’t.

We expect the bank accounts to swell to accommodate the gifts we desire to give. We expect the tension we’ve walked in every other month of the year to loosen its grip and let us live in peace for a few weeks. We expect the grief we’ve suffered to pause for just a minute and let us breathe.

We walk into this season expecting a whole lot. Expecting our lives to really look like the Christmas cards we send.

And maybe they do at times. Don’t get me wrong. There are beautiful moments to be had this season. Watching children and grandchildren light up the room with their belief in Christmas magic. Invitations to Christmas parties with friends and loved ones. New love, and new babies, and first Christmases spent together. And singing – oh, the singing! It is indeed a beautiful, heart-warming, fuzzy, cheesy, gloriously happy time of year in certain moments.

But in the moments when it’s not, how do we survive? And what do we do when the lights go out, the decorations are packed, and we’re left again with the bare and empty walls we started with? How do we move past our expectations when another year passes and they just aren’t entirely met?

May I submit a possibility that we are expecting the wrong things. Maybe we need to expect something else.

You see, the truth is, Jesus Himself told us we would have trouble here. And there wasn’t a caveat in that verse that told us we’d get a break at Christmas. We don’t. Life at this time of year is covered in a little more glitter, a little more light, a little more cheer and charity, but it is still life. There are still parts that hurt. There are parts that cannot be wrapped up in a neat, Hallmark Christmas bow. There are questions still unanswered. Problems still unsolved. Wounds still opened and not quite healed.

But what if we changed our expectations? What if, instead of expecting a perfect Christmas, we expected a perfect Savior? What if we took time to open our hearts and “prepare Him room”? To expect Him to show up in our lives? To expect Him to be enough for us? Because He is enough for us. Our world may not be commercially classified as merry and bright this season, but we can be sure that the Prince of Peace Himself has arrived and brought us freedom from our strife. That is cause enough for celebration. An expectation sure to be fulfilled and in Jesus, already met.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

One thing we have that the shepherds didn’t that night is a view of the cross from the manger. When you look into the face of the infant Divine this Christmas, you will find a Savior. You will find a King that has conquered death. You will find a Messiah, a Deliverer, who has far exceeded “all we could ever ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).

Rather than hanging all our hopes on how this Christmas will meet our needs and expectations, may we instead look at Jesus, who is the final Word on all we could ever hope for. He is the healing of our heartbreak. The new song of redemption we sing. The reason we celebrate. The restoration of our broken narrative. The joy declared to all the world.

May we turn our faces to the manger and expect with certainty to see our Savior, Jesus.

“One thing I want my soul to remember and I want your soul to know is that life isn’t always good; humans aren’t always good; but God is good. Always.”

-Amena Brown, Broken Records

 

Borrowed Light

I specifically purchased it. Went out of my way to make sure I had it the night before I left. Packed it securely in the bottom of my suitcase. It was ready, batteries and all.

And there it stayed for the whole trip. Never actually being used. It sat quietly beneath a layer of clothes while I walked off without it. And at the moment when I needed it most, I discovered I had left it behind.


A few months ago, my dad asked me to write a short introduction for an advent booklet he was compiling for my home church. Something simple. 400 words. Just a quick welcome to the advent season.

As I thought about how to intro into a season like advent in 400 words, one in particular kept rising to the surface of my mind.

Light.

We string strands of it around trees and over fireplaces, place candles in window sills, and sit in their glow at silent Lord’s Supper services. Many of our most treasured traditions during this season revolve around light.

As much as we tout the merriness and brightness of Christmas, as much as we try to drown out the darkness of the previous year with our colored lights and flickering candles, and attempt to cover up the emptiness with piles of gifts and sweets, it often isn’t enough. There are those standing next to you in line while you skim these words, sitting beside you in waiting rooms, that do not look on this season with light. Or maybe it isn’t them at all; maybe it’s you. Maybe the pair of eyes reading these words are having trouble seeing the light all around them.

Maybe this holiday comes as a rude interruption to grief – the rosy cheeks and inflated decorations appearing garish next to the loss you’ve suffered. Maybe it is a reminder of someone who never came back or someone who never showed up in the first place. Maybe it is a matter of expectation versus reality. The bright colors and happy endings you see inside your TV screen make your current surroundings look dull or bleak. Maybe the string of plastic bulbs wrapped around your Christmas tree is all the light you can find this season.

But let me tell you with certainty, there is more light to be seen.


The atmosphere was cool and damp – a welcome reprieve after a long day in the hot and dusty Israeli desert. I stepped carefully down each step, paying careful attention to where and how my foot landed on the twisty iron stairs. We marched forward and continued our travels south. Stairs and stairs and stairs and then, just when I thought I’d never see the sun again, another set of stairs to top it all off. We multi-tasked the best we could, listening to our guide spout facts about these historic depths while trying to maintain our balance beneath the centuries-old stone.

By the time we arrived at the main attraction, there were 130 feet of stone and earth separating me from the sun, and I was watching my friends one by one step through a small opening in the stone wall.

Hezekiah’s tunnel. We had come all this way to experience this. Down into the depths of the earth we had walked and walked and walked for this moment. And the thing I needed most for this adventure had been left in my hotel room, miles and miles away.

My light.

Up to this point, we had still been in a place that supplied electricity, but now we were entering a space so ancient and deep, artificial light had not found a permanent place there. That silly headlamp I had taken such care to pack for this express purpose sat in my suitcase turned off and unused.

I had two options. Number one, sit this next adventure out and climb back up to the light of the sun. Or number two, borrow some light.

As we approached the tunnel, I confessed my situation to a few friends as they pulled out their own headlamps and strapped them around their ponytails.

“I forgot mine. It’s back at the hotel. Can I walk between you two so that I can see?”

They kindly agreed to this solution, and we stood in the stalled queue awaiting our turn to step into the darkness.

I will tell you candidly that while I am grateful I got the unique opportunity to walk, crouched and uncomfortable, for half an hour under the earth with ice-cold water streaming steadily over my feet, I don’t necessarily feel a distinct urge to repeat the scenario anytime soon. We were behind a group of college students that kept stopping at inopportune moments for what felt like an interminable amount of time, and while I am not traditionally claustrophobic, I did make my discomfort in the situation known to the crowd ahead of me.

But as I watched my shadow follow me through the cavern, stopping and starting as we moved along, I was distinctly and profoundly aware that the light creating it was not mine.

I was careful with each step, making sure my feet landed securely. My hands dragged along the walls beside me. My five-foot, ten-inch frame bent and stretched beneath the ever-changing ceiling. Eden walked in front of me, her curly hair squashed beneath the band of her headlight. Adrianne walked behind me, careful not to bump into my protruding backpack. Both girls had their chins tilted to the floor of the cave, and battery-operated beams from their headlamps created circles of illumination around our feet.

Our feet. Theirs and mine.

Even without my own, I could see because of theirs. I borrowed the light. I walked between them – one before me, one behind – and made it through every moment of darkness because they shared their light.


Maybe you are the one without this season. Maybe things look a little too dark for any celebration. Maybe you can’t fathom how the words peace and joy factor into this season.

Maybe you’ve found yourself staring down the barrel of a dark tunnel, and you’ve forgotten your light.

Lift your eyes, and find a light-bearer. They are there all around you willing to stand before you, behind you, beside you and let you step in the circle of their light. Ask for help, and don’t walk alone in the dark. See this truth in the borrowed light: “There is no night that can steal the promises His coming brings to us.” No night, not even the one you’re in. Jesus, the baby born in a manger, the Savior sent to rescue us, is Light enough for even this.

And listen to me, light-bearers. You who know the Light of all the world. You who know that we celebrate because He came to dispel every darkness. Be easy to find. Look at the those around you this season and declare to them “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5). Point the watching world to the manger, to the cross, to the empty grave and invite them to “come and see what God has done.” 

May the ones who find themselves facing darkness this season also find themselves between Light-bearers who promise to walk with them. And may we who bear the Light remember what we carry and freely offer to share.

 

The Sam’s Club with Charman Leigh and Big John

Hey there. Yes, you. I’m talking to you sitting on your couch scrolling absentmindedly through the Facebook. I know what you’re doing. You’re procrastinating that grocery trip you have to make before All The People show up to your house for The Very Big Feast that is also sometimes called Thanksgiving. I know. It’s daunting and exhausting to even think about it. The masses will be out and about doing the very same thing, and just your luck, you WILL get the buggy with the squeaky wheel and the sticky handle. Them’s the breaks, kid. So, I get your desire to postpone the horrifying task of grocery shopping until the very last possible minute. But I think I have something that will make you up to the task.

I thought you might like to come with me today and accompany Big John and Charm to the Sam’s Club. It is just entertaining enough that it might do the trick, and inspire you to tackle your own grocery list.

Yes? You would? Great!

Now, step one: Walk through the door.


If you’re with Charm, you’ll notice that she already has the card out and ready. She flashes it quickly at the friendly attendant without slowing down a tiny bit. I doubt they ever actually see her identification, but no one has ever questioned her. My mother marches into Sam’s Club with all the authority and confidence of a general riding in to retrieve the prisoners of war. The battle’s already over. She has a list and a route. She’s here to collect her spoils.

As am I, frankly. There are two reasons I go to Sam’s Club. Neither have anything to do with grocery shopping. Years ago, I learned that if I volunteered to accompany Charm on her regular Sam’s run, I could coax her into paying me in a ginormous Coke and a soft, cinnamon pretzel. There’s little I won’t do for a cinnamon pretzel.

If you’re tagging along with Charm, you’ll need to step lively, please and thank you. Her legs are short, but they are quick and determined. Don’t stop to smell the roses, and don’t you even THINK about looking at the electronic section. There is invariably a sweet-smiling salesman there waiting for the teeniest flash of eye contact to greenlight him into a sales pitch. Charm does not have time for this, so please keep your head down until you pass the section with books and outdoor furniture.

Note: If you’re with Big John, this previous information is irrelevant.

Now, the second thing I go to the Sam’s Club for is the conversation. I walk beside my mama and tell her all the things I’ve been thinking on recently. So if you have anything that you’d like to get off your chest, now is the time. This L-shaped walk between the eager sales guy and the produce section is the land of grab and go. This is the part of our stroll that requires the least amount of critical thinking on Charm’s part. This is where her attention is evenly split, and now is your chance. After this, the conversation will narrow to jokes and bits that are purely for your own benefit and entertainment. Once you catch your first glimpse of fresh fruit and veggies, she loses a significant amount of her attention span. Don’t even think about discussing anything serious until you round the corner into the aisle with the canned beans. She just won’t hear you.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating: there are people who work their entire lives to have the kind of concentration my mother has in the Sam’s produce section. Experts write books about it and sell gobs of them with how-to instructions printed neatly inside. And she just has it. When she is examining heads of cauliflower, the rest of the world simply doesn’t exist. It’s like a scene in a movie when the main character is so lost in thought and their surroundings just fade away behind some kind of dream. She goes somewhere entirely different when she’s concentrating on getting the best looking box of spring mix. Sometimes I wonder what that other world must look like, how it must feel to escape the confines of this concrete warehouse of household necessities into a calm and quiet place to really examine the price difference between different types of cheese. I usually stand with my feet firmly planted on the ground, while she floats inside her own head, coming back to reality only when she sees something so attention worthy that she’ll have to point it out to me. “Now, look at that, Elizabeth,” she’ll say. “That’s one of those pre-made salads. It’s got all the little things that go with it. The dressing and all that. That might be something you might want to try.” Or “Oh! Look how cute the packaging is on these cherry tomatoes! Ugh! I am a sucker for some cute packaging!”

One of my favorite parts about the Sam’s Club are the little sample carts scattered throughout the store. There are usually about three or four in this section alone. I wander to and from my mother’s cart to the folks wrapped in hair-nets offering me tiny cups of flavored popcorn or carrots and a new veggie dip. Not Charm, though. When she is in her shopping zone, not even the tantalizing smell of a tiny cup of cider turns her head. It is otherworldly.

Now, once we move passed the bread and into the non-perishables, you can pick up your conversation here with a real hope that she’ll join back in. However, at this point in my journey

I’m usually too lost in a few bits or jokes I started when I was my only audience. Charm’s fog lifts, and it doesn’t take her long to be 100% over it. She just spent an exorbitant amount of energy back there – mental and emotional – and she’s losing steam quickly. We’re back to the land of grab and go, and we are moving fast so please keep up.

We’re nearing the end of our Sam’s Club route with Charm. In days past, this is the part when I’d actually have an opportunity to be helpful. We’d wheel the loaded down cart to the nearest (and least crowded) conveyor belt and unload every piece from inside the treasure chest only to watch it be scanned and dropped back into another buggy. Now, though, we’re in a new era of apps and technology. And let me tell you something – this thrills Charm to NO END. You’re saying that she can go into Sam’s, scan her own items, and walk right out without talking to another soul? That is music to her introverted ears.

Because Charm is typically the valiant grocery leader in our family, I should’ve known that things would end poorly when Big John and I ventured in on our own a few weeks ago. When we started at the pretzel counter and actually sat down to enjoy our snack, I was lulled into a false sense of security. “Great!” I thought. “This will be way less stressful than grocery shopping with Charm. Look how laid back we are.”

FALSE.

Even as we got started on the actual task at hand (in the PRODUCE SECTION NO LESS. What are we? SAVAGES?), I still held to the belief that this would be a perfectly lovely afternoon. But I was wrong. I was so very wrong.

We had been standing at the butcher’s counter for nearly fifteen minutes, my dad staring with a look of consternation into the freezer box below, when I realized we were in deep, deep trouble without Charman Leigh. Knowing how much time we had already lost in this section alone, I left Dad to his thoughts and started on other parts of the list. Where Charm needed not an ounce of help, Dad would need all the help I could give.

Eventually, we made it out. We lived to tell the tale, although Big John always like to include the defense, “If you hadn’t have been buggin’ me and putting it all on Instagram, I would’ve been fine.” He’s still in denial about the trauma and my heroic contribution in getting us out in one piece.


There now. Don’t you feel better? Don’t you feel inclined to brave the cold for some canned pumpkin and jellied cranberry sauce?

I knew you would.

Best of luck! Call Charm if you need help finding anything while you’re out. Call Big John if you need help with…well, literally anything else.

 

Israel Part Four: “You Are Peter”

The sun shone and the breeze blew and I stared hard at the shore before me. The Sea of Galilee. A piece of history unburied beneath churches or rebuilt roads. This was the actual spot, preserved and waiting to tell a story. And I was all ears.

Out of all the biblical moments that happened in this place on this sea, there was one scene in particular that faded into view. As I watched it unfold in my mind, I called my imagination into action, wanting to hear the crackling fire for myself. To smell the charcoal, the fish, the sea.


Only a chapter over from last week’s story of Mary Magdalene, I stepped into John 21 and found Peter climbing back onto a boat and shoving out to sea.

“Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. ‘I’m going out to fish,’ Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you” so they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.”

One of my annoying habits in life is projecting feelings onto others based on my own assumptions, so maybe I’m way off-base here, but allow me a little “sanctified imagination” as my dad likes to call it. When I read the verses above, I sense a littlefrustration from Peter. Do you hear it?

His declaration isn’t an invitation to an easy night of fishing with friends. It sounds more like an “I have to get out of here and clear my head” statement. Artists use paint brushes, writers use pens and computer keyboards, runners strap on their running shoes. We all have a place we go to unwind knotted up thoughts. For Peter, it was the place he knew best—the sea.


As I stood on that shore, I wondered what Peter must have been thinking out there on the boat. What did he need to clear from his troubled mind? What thoughts pressed in like closing walls around him? Did his vision give way to the shadows and flickering flames in his memory from his hour of shame in Caiaphas’ courtyard? Did the rooster’s cry still ring in his ears with crystal clear clarity? Like a movie montage, I imagine the memories that must have crowded Peter’s mind.

“‘But what about you?’ [Jesus] asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’” Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…’”

-Matthew 16:15-18a

We don’t know exactly how long it had been since the night Peter denied knowing Jesus, but I am certain it had not been so long that he had forgotten the weight of what he’d done. In Jesus’ greatest hour of need, Peter had cowered before the consequences that would come from being associated with this man he had called Teacher. Hauling in an empty net in the dark hours of the morning, did the voices of shame sneak in for their attack on his vulnerable heart?  

You are no rock. That might have been true once, but after your cowardice, nothing can be built here. You are just a worthless fisherman. And judging by this empty net, you are not even a very good one. Good job, Peter. You blew it.

I leaned down to touch the water lapping the stones on the shore and felt deeply connected to Peter. I thought of what those voices have said to me before. I thought of how my shoulders have often bent beneath the weight of fear and failure. The accusatory voice of shame, whispering lies about who I am, who I will never be. But a lump caught in my throat when I remembered what happened in this spot all those years ago. How Jesus answered those voices for Peter. How He answers them for me.


Dawn was coming over the hills around them. After a fruitless night of fishing, after sleepless hours of hauling in empty nets, Peter looks to the shore where I now stand and sees a man there calling out to him. Though it took the disciples a minute to realize who He was, the light bulb eventually clicked on and they knew Who was filling their boat with fish. While the other disciples rowed quickly to shore, Peter just couldn’t wait.

Scripture tells us that he vaulted himself into the water and began swimming toward shore.

His shame was heavy, but it could not hold him to the ship. It propelled him over the edge into the water, swimming toward his Savior. Maybe the burden of what he’d done, of what he’d seen and experienced still weighed him down as he swam, but he could not be stopped. The joy of seeing His risen Savior eclipsed all that old shame. He took it to the only One who could lift it. The only One who could set him free.

Psalm 34, verse 5 says, “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” We cannot simultaneously be covered with shame while looking at the face of Jesus. Peter experienced that firsthand when he sloshed out of the waves, dripping with adrenaline, and looked at His Savior. His shame fell from his shoulders when he locked eyes with his Friend, Jesus, and saw the forgiveness waiting for him there.

“Grace exposes then forgives, confronts then comforts, commands then enables, never leaves you to yourself, but will deliver what is needed.”

-Paul David Tripp

In the verses following, Jesus restores Peter and tells him how he will be used in the kingdom going forward. Because he will be used. His sin and betrayal didn’t count him out; the blood of Jesus answered for him. There on the beach, Christ reminds Peter that there is still a place for him to serve. Still a commission to be fulfilled.Feed my sheep. Not because Peter is anything special, but because Jesus is the One who declared it so. “You are Peter,” He says. “This is Your name. This is who you are because of who I am. Because of what I have done for you.”

On that Galilean shore, I stood in overwhelming gratitude that the blood of Jesus speaks for me, too. He is not done with me after failure. He takes the broken pieces of my life and reshapes them into a frame that will display His glory. Nothing is wasted. His gaze on me removes all shame and makes my face radiant.

So maybe today is the day we need to jump out of our brooding boats, swim right past the voices of shame and fear, and emerge from the water right in front of our friend Jesus. We step onto the shore with our eyes locked on His and our ears tuned in to what He is saying about our identity and let every other voice fade away.

“With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.”

-Romans 8:1-6 (The Message)

Israel Part Three: With the Memory of Mary

On the Sunday after our arrival, we set out after church toward Magdala, the hometown of one Mary Magdalene. It was an excavation uncovered only a few years ago, ruins of the city unearthed after all this time. I stepped out into the dust of an old, forgotten town and tried to imagine what it was like when she was there. I saw the remaining stones of the synagogue young Mary would have frequented, and I tried to imagine her there as a child. Was she precocious? Did she squirm or whisper or daydream? Or did she sit as still as the stones around her, enraptured by the idea of a coming Savior?

We don’t know when this happened or how old she was when it did, but Scripture tells us that Mary suffered from demon possession. Though it doesn’t give us the details of how the affliction manifested itself in her, there has never been a case of “mild” demon possession. I let my imagination fill in the gaps of Mary’s story as I walked through what remained of her city. She must have looked atrocious. Fierce. Out of control. She was a prisoner in her own skin. Trapped like a frightened animal caught in a cage. Isolated and oppressed with no hope of escape.

We don’t know much about her family or her community, but I have to wonder about how they treated her in her illness. Did they see her as a threat? As a liability? As an embarrassment? Was she kept behind closed doors or sent far away?

Walking around the ruins of that city, I wondered what her first encounter with Jesus was like. Had she heard the whispers about Him? Had the demons inside her become more violent and demonstrative because they sensed their time in her body was nearing an end? Did she long to get close, or did she try to hide her infirmities?

I don’t know how they came to be face-to-face. I don’t know if she met Him on the road or heard Him in the synagogue or hosted Him in her family’s home. Wherever it was though, Jesus stepped right into the middle of her sickness, her hopelessness, her loneliness, and commanded the storm inside her to be still. At the sound of His voice, the demons fled. And for the first time since the siege had begun on her body and mind, Mary breathed a sigh of relief. Reeling with her newfound freedom, she lifted her face and locked eyes with her Savior.

Not just the Savior she’d heard of all her life. The One who was coming for the salvation of her people, for the entire human race. Oh, it was Him alright. That same Savior who was the promised Messiah from the big picture prophecies. But I wonder if in that moment, looking into His compassionate countenance, she realized that He was also the Savior who had come for her specifically. For Mary of Magdala. He was the Savior who had come to set her free.


This wasn’t the first time I’d thought of Mary Magdalene on this trip. In last week’s blog, I mentioned my moments at The Garden Tomb on the first day, but I didn’t tell you that while I was there, her shadow slipped in and sat beside me on that bench in the shade. I thought of how terrified she must have been in those moments alone outside the tomb. I wondered if she slept a wink that first night after her Savior and friend drew His last breath. I imagined she tossed and turned with fear. While the other disciples cowered behind locked doors and slammed shutters fearing political repercussions for their associations with Jesus, Mary might have been terrorized by even more gruesome prospects. Who could think of Roman capture or religious scorn when the memory of an enemy far greater and more oppressive lingered at the door of her mind. I wondered if she turned over unthinkable questions as she grieved. Would the demons return to reclaim what Jesus had set free? Now that He was gone, was she no longer safe? Would the peace she had known since her liberation be coming to an end?

Sitting there on a wooden bench listening to the Gospel presentation, I went in my mind to the scene in John 20. Mary stands in the garden weeping. The body of her Savior has been stolen, and the wounds of her grief, still raw from the past three days, are ripped wide open.

“…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’

He called her by name, and in that instant, she knew it was Him. He was alive, and she was safe. The ghosts and shadows of old demons disappeared in the light of His presence, at the sound of His voice.

I’ve talked about this before, but it still grips me with such power when I think of it. Jesus knows our names. He is simultaneously the Savior of the whole, nameless world, and the Savior of each one of us specifically. Individually. Personally. He is the God who stepped into humanity’s collective mess, and He is the God who steps into my mess. And because I know the whole story, I don’t cry at the tomb for same reason Mary did in John 20.

My tears spill down my cheeks out of overwhelming gratitude.

Gratitude for broken chains.

For debts paid.

For life when I deserved death.

For a personal Savior who looked on me with compassion and called out my name.

And sitting there with the memory of Mary Magdalene close by, I heard Him call it again. Take a moment, and be still, friend. Sit with us here, and listen closely.

Don’t you hear Him calling yours?

 

 

 

 

Israel Part Two: In the Shadow of an Empty Tomb

At 11:30 AM, we stepped off a crowded airplane after fifteen hours of travel and immediately crammed onto a tour bus. The melatonin I’d taken on the plane had done little to aid my rest, and it was a dark and sleepy 3:30 AM back in Tennessee. Bleary-eyed, I stared through the window, trying to soak in this reality. I was finally here.

Somewhere old. Somewhere new.

After lunch, we started with the Mount of Olives and walked down through the streets on the Palm Sunday route. The overlook outside the church on the Mount of Olives stood opposite the Eastern gate once opened for the entering Savior. Days before He was crucified, Jesus rode into Jerusalem, through that gate, under the high praise of the people who would call for His life to be taken only a few days later.

This was the view Jesus saw as He wept over the city that would reject him. Yet He rode on anyway, steadfast toward the cross.

Out of His great love, He rode on.

On our trek down the mountain, we stopped at the Garden of Gethsemane. It was Thursday, and that was not lost on me. I began to imagine that Thursday all those years ago. My Savior in this place, the night before His crucifixion. A lump caught in my throat as I read aloud the Scripture describing His moments in that place. “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly…” (Lk. 22:44a)

I saw Him there, kneeling in the dust beneath the shadow of a tree. This was the garden that had watched great drops of blood fall from His forehead and stain the earth below. I saw Him there, rocking back and forth slowly in agony.

Agony. I couldn’t let go of that word as I stared into the garden. Agony on my behalf. On behalf of every human heart and the cost redemption would require.

There are two sites in Jerusalem where they believe Jesus’ burial and resurrection may have occurred, and truthfully, the one we saw a few days later has a few more geographical points in its favor. But I wasn’t here to double check for absolute certain that the tomb was empty. I believed the answer to that question a long time ago.

I was here to worship.

Once I crossed the threshold of our final stop for day one, my heart snapped to attention. The Garden Tomb. This is what I came for, I thought. I can’t miss it. I cannot miss this moment.

But oh, how I was weary. The sights had been heavy and hard to process while moving so quickly through each stop, and the day had been unbelievably long.

I was jet lagged and exhausted, and the Israeli desert had been relentless; I was inching closer to dehydration and ready to find a cool place to sit for a while.

And wouldn’t you know, I found rest in the garden.

We were ushered into the shade of gracious trees and allowed to sit and rest our aching legs and feet.

And as I recount this story, I think how very right that is, that we should find rest there outside the empty tomb.

Because the empty tomb means rest for more than aching bones. It means rest for tired hearts who are worn plumb out from fighting for their own freedom. It means rest for the broken spirits who are weary from striving toward perfection. It means rest for all the lost and abandoned souls who have worked hard to be found worthy of finding. It means rest from grief, from loss, from shame.

The empty tomb means victory. Release. Life instead of death.


We sat in the garden just outside the tomb listening to a tour guide named Caesar share again the story of redemption. Its familiarity made it no less overwhelming. That a God like that would love a girl like me. Would love me so fiercely and unconditionally that He would wrap Himself in human flesh, live a sinless life, and die on a shameful cross, all to pay the price for my sin.

To redeem me.

It’s the greatest story ever told. The whole reason we were there.  

It was a powerful moment hearing that truth spoken in the very land where it all happened, and I will never forget that experience. But here’s what is absolutely, without a doubt true: it’s a powerful story anywhere. It’s a powerful love that finds you wherever you are today. You don’t have to fly all the way around the world to find rest at an empty tomb. You don’t have to have a passport to experience peace.

The beauty of the Gospel is that Jesus came to us.

And because the tomb is empty, because He is alive, He comes to us still.

Wherever you are, whatever circumstances hem you in today, whatever battles you have looming in the distance, Jesus will meet you there. Right there in the middle of it. He has not forgotten you. He has not abandoned you or written you off as a lost cause. He has come close, and He invites you to sit in the garden, unload every burden, and rest in the shadow of an empty tomb.

Israel Part One: Welcome Back

When I arrived home from my world travels a few weeks ago, I was greeted cheerfully by my $10 doormat that reads cheekily, “Hello Gorgeous.”

I was not in that moment.

I was filthy with the grime of 20+ hours in airports, on planes, above oceans. I had spent an entire day in the company of thousands of other tired, gross voyagers, so I knew with certainty that my welcome mat was being intentionally hurtful.

But I didn’t really care, because I was home.

If you’re reading this and wondering where I’ve been recently, I’d point you to everywhere. July was all over the map. Truthfully, 2018 has been all over the map. I worried last week as I pulled up to the Nashville airport for the gazillionth time that they might start charging me rent.

But if you’re asking about the only trip that required my passport, I’d point you to a sliver of land between Jordan and Egypt.


I was offered the opportunity to join the team going to Israel less than twenty days before the departure date. A spot had opened up, and I had about three hours to decide if I wanted to take it.

Because I am who I am and old habits die incredibly hard and slow deaths, I began immediately thinking of all the reasons not to go. There was a whole crew of them but the one at the wheel, the captain at the helm of the ship, was a familiar face. Fear herself, barking orders to hoist the sail and ride the wind of doubt right on out of this idea.

It was risky.

I hadn’t seen an agenda after all, and if you don’t already know this about me, listen close: I DO NOT LIKE TO TRAVEL WITHOUT AN AGENDA.

It makes me crazy not to have the details typed neatly out in all the trip’s color-coded glory.

But I had no itinerary, no plan, no idea what was ahead of me. All I saw was a door swung wide open and an opportunity to walk through it. In a matter of hours, I had to decide if I was going to be brave enough to get on the plane.

The only option was a blind yes or no.


Do you know that feeling right after you decide to jump straight into the pool instead of easing into the water? The feeling of nervous anticipation? You know the water will be cold, a shock to your system. You know it will take your breath away and be a little uncomfortable the minute you hit the water. But you’ve already decided to jump. You’ve made the preliminary decision to be brave, and there’s no backing out now. All that’s left to do is close your eyes, hold your breath, and jump.

That’s how I felt when I arrived at the airport on our departure date. Completely out of control in the best way possible. I got on the plane (still) without a color-coded agenda and with only a handful of informational tidbits as to what the next two weeks would hold. But I had already decided to trust the Lord with this trip; now it was time to put my feet in the water, and watch Him fold the river back.


A few days before I left, I picked up a pen again. Not a metaphorical pen. A real one. My favorite actually—a Pilot G-2 07.

(Pilot, if you’re listening, give me a shout if y’all need a spokesperson. My supply is running low, and my sponsorship fee can be paid in pink and purple ink.)

Though I normally gravitate toward a keyboard, a blank Word doc, and a blinking cursor, I felt like I needed to remind myself of what it felt like to hold the instrument in my hand.

And the truth is, the blinking cursor had been taunting and intimidating me for months. I haven’t published anything since Christmas for a lot of different reasons: busyness with work, the aforementioned all-over-the-mapness, responsibilities, deadlines, etc. All valid and understandable, season-oriented reasons. But I’d be lying if I didn’t mention Fear as well. There’s always a persistent, low whisper in the back of my mind that wonders if I’ve run out.

Maybe the last creative thought I had was the last creative thought I’ll ever have. Maybe the last cohesive piece I wrote was the best it’ll ever be. Maybe the gift and joy of writing has run dry.

So the command to write has lived in perpetual purgatory on my to-do list for the last seven months. Some days, it barked bossily at me to get up and put some words on a page for crying out loud. Other days, it just looked mournfully up at me wondering what it had done wrong to make me desert it so completely.

But a few weeks ago, as I sat with my notebook in my lap and my pen in my hand, I began to remember some very important things. I began to remember how much I needed it. Watching the life-blood of my favorite pen run out behind my thoughts, I remembered that this was my best chance of untangling the knots in my head and in my heart. I remembered that this is my best hope of unloading what’s heavy.


The Lord used my trip to work out a lot of things in my heart and mind, but each one fit inside a constant theme: Would I be brave? Would I trust Him enough to take Him at His Word? To follow Him into the unknown without an itinerary or agenda? Would I be obedient and take the next right step, wherever that led?

For me, in this moment, the next right step is to ignore Fear and write it all down. To pull out my pen and spill some ink.

 

Weary Souls Rejoice

I’ve been thinking a lot about the 400 year gap between Malachi and Matthew. The absolute silence of God. The quiet. The waiting. The dryness that settled over the people of Israel. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,” you know.

And I’ve thought about the promise remembered and recalled at every festival, with every prayer, in every household for 400 years. “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

I’ve wondered at the questions that must have sprung like weeds in the most barren parts of their hearts.

How will you save us?

When will Messiah come?

Will there be justice?

Will we be free?

How much more can we bear?

How long must we wait?

Are you still there?



I’ve thought of the Jewish children perched atop gnarled knees, listening intently to an elderly voice telling about a promised ransom, a payment coming for all the captives.  

I’ve thought of those same children growing up in the moments just before the star arrived. The palpable feeling of change in the winds. The stirring of hearts. The whispers. The prophecies remembered.

And I’ve thought of the moment when God’s silence was split by the cries of a newborn. Son of God, Son of Man. Divinity zipped up in mere inches of human flesh. An audacious rescue looked for, but still shocking and unexpected in His arrival.

I’ve imagined the crowd of shepherds—Jewish men who knew the promise—creeping slowly to the door of the stable cave.

“Is it true?”

“Can it be?”

“Is this the one we’ve been waiting for?”

And Mary nods. It’s Him.

After 400 years of waiting, He is finally here.

It wasn’t all healed in a moment. When the sun rose the next day, Romans were still in control. Herod was still a psychotic tyrant. There was still heartache to be faced. Rachel had much mourning left before her (Mt. 2:18).

But the fulfillment of a promise made at the dawn of time had been set into motion. Beneath a star was born the One who would set it all right. The One who would call to the exiled and bring them home. The One who would pay the ransom for sin and set free every captive.

I’ve wondered about the moments following the stable scene. When the shepherds walked away from the grand nativity stage that night, did they wonder how it would all unfold? Did they realize that it would be a long time before the infant King was ready to rule? And did they know that when He did, it would be vastly different from what the world expected? Thirty-three years later, did any of them squint against the sun and watch as a cross, splintered and bloody, was raised before them? Did they bow their heads in disappointment? Did they question what all their hoping had been for?

When Mary woke the next morning, did she feel as if a boulder was sitting on her chest, the weight of what she had been asked to do nearly unbearable? Did Joseph break out in anxious hives every time he remembered he had been tasked with the incredible job of raising the Son of God? Teaching him to walk and count and build?

And what about the questions that ran through the minds of the wise men on their long journey home? Did they look one to the other and ask, “did we really just meet a king? In that tiny house? And when His kingdom comes, will there be a place for us?”

I wonder about those questions, I guess, because I’ve had some of my own.

I know what it is to wonder if God chose the wrong person for a task to which I was called. I know what it is to wonder how long I’ll have to wait for an answer to a burning question. How long I’ll have to wait for freedom, for relief, for a moment of reprieve. I know what it is to wonder if there’s a place for me at the table. I know what it feels like to bear the burden of the unknown. I know what it is to wonder how the story will end and what it will cost in the in between.

As I enter this Christmas season, I stand peering through the gaps of the shoulders of a dozen reeking shepherds, catching glimpses of the Promise. I shove my way through to the trough that holds the King who came to rescue me. I lay down every question and look instead at His face. “Born that man no more may die/Born to raise the sons of earth/Born to give them second birth.”

And as I turn to leave to go back into the night to my post in the fields, I have to confess that there are things I still don’t understand. There are still heartaches and difficulties to be faced in the days ahead. But I looked on the face of my Savior, and that is enough. He is enough.

“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (Jn. 8:12).

Four hundred years of silence, and then He steps in.

Four hundred years of darkness, and then there was a star.

Four hundred years of waiting, hoping, doubting, looking, and then He was there.

Humanity’s Creator King come to rescue.

When the stage was set, the curtains rolled back, every piece in place, God rent the heavens with a spotlight, shining with unwavering brightness on the face of His promise.

And with the privilege and gift of perspective, looking back from the top of Golgotha’s hill, we see that even in the silence, He was never idle or absent. “…for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).



How will you save us?

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son…” (Isa. 7:14)

When will Messiah come?

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” (Gal. 4:4-5)

Will there be justice?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18a)

Will we be free?

“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…” (Luke 4:18b)

How much more can we bear?

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt. 11:29)

How long must we wait?

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isa. 9:6)

Are you still there?

“They will call him Immanuel, God with us.” (Mt. 1:23)

What Do These Stones Mean?

In Joshua chapter four, a new generation of Israelites stood on the far side of the Jordan watching as the raging river waters returned to their normal flow. The people stood in awe as their fingertips grazed the fabric of their clothes. Dry as the desert from which they just emerged. They walked through the river and there wasn’t a wet fiber on them. A reminder that their lives had been preserved by the hand of an Almighty God.

He had been faithful.

The leaders of the twelve tribes each took a stone from the bottom of the river and placed them in a pile beside the bank to memorialize the great deliverance.

“Then Joshua said to the Israelites, ‘In the future your children will ask, “What do these stones mean?” Then you can tell them, “This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.” For the Lord your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over.”
Joshua 4:21-23

My parents and grandparents have done this my whole life. They have picked up the stones made smooth by the tumultuous rivers of their lives and placed them in a visible spot, so that the generations behind them will ask, “What do these stones mean?” Much of who I am as a person is comprised of their stone stories. The
memories of grace told to me, shown to me, by those whose feet have walked farther than my own—they are the stones that built my foundation. And throughout my history, I have been adding memorial stones of my own next to the rivers I’ve crossed. My pile is small and still growing, but it is clear evidence of God’s faithfulness in my legacy.

Maybe while you read this, you remember the stones you’ve collected. Feel them heavy in your pocket. And maybe someone needs to hear the story. Needs to know, “What do these stones mean?” I can’t think of a better time to tell them than around a Thanksgiving table.

Bring out the rocks you picked up as you crossed through the waters of this year, of your life, and pile them right there next to the turkey and sweet potatoes. Show your family what the Lord has done. Tell them of the moment when you put your foot in a raging river with faith you weren’t sure was yours and watched the waters peel back like old wallpaper. Tell them how you watched the faithfulness of God come through an impossible situation. A painful crossing soothed by the balm of His presence. Tell them. Stack the stones high and remember the rivers from whence they came.

“….so all the nations of the earth might know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the Lord your God forever.”
Joshua 4:24

Hear the Rocks Cry Out

Today is my birthday.

On this date twenty-five years ago, I entered this world. Opened my eyes for the first time. Joined the ranks of beating hearts.

For every birthday since, there has been one thing that has always remained constant. After every celebration, I have found my feet firmly planted on the ground. My view of life around me: horizontal and concrete.

Very different from the view I see today–vertical and ever-changing.

On this birthday there will be 39,000 feet between the ground and me.

The truth is, there have been 39,000 feet between the ground and me a lot lately. I have stepped onto twenty flights in the last ten weeks.

Every pilot has landed the plane somewhere new and unfamiliar to me, so I’ve spent plenty of time with my nose pressed to the glass drinking in new sights. I indulge in the beautiful luxury of stillness, my forehead leaning on the window beside me as I sit quietly and watch the world go by.

There is something really special about the view from up that high. The land below stretches out and falls away making it look small and enormous in the same glance. I’m suddenly gazing at a vast topographical model like the ones you see in museums. Instead of one battlefield or city, I see everything. All of it. Stretching farther than my eyes can reach.

Flat farmlands connect like patches on a quilt. Colors and patterns threaded together by dirt roads.

Rivers wind and twist, running like veins across the earth, flowing, giving life to stagnant things.

Clouds float delicately alongside, so close you could reach out and touch them. They are never concerned by the strangers passing through their midst.

Some mountains rise up in friendly competition, each one stretching higher than the last. Others have their chests puffed out proudly, reveling in their glittery crowns of snow. They all stand stoically beside one another like broad-shouldered soldiers vowing solemnly to protect the valley below.

Canyons carved in the dry places, always watching the clouds beside you waiting for rain to refill their cracked walls.

Pools of lake water–puddles of sky fallen to the earth–are nestled sweetly between the hills, waiting with kindness for the wanderer who approaches thirsty for beauty and peace.

It’s clarifying in the most soul-clearing way. It’s perspective. It’s zooming out to remember for a moment that the world is big and I am small. Those mountains have stood at their posts since long before I entered this world twenty-five years ago and will go on standing without my help or permission for years to come.

I see the topographical model of my life so far. Twenty-five years stretched out behind me. Dry deserts, mountain peaks, valley beds, running rivers. Every part singing a different note in harmony to the same song.

You can hear them all the way up there, you know—39,000 feet in the air. You can still hear the rocks.

I imagine they sing out in a sweet, tenor tone. The trees in the forests join in with a rich alto, and the mountains belt out in strength and provide the foundational bass. And the running waters of the rivers sing a clear soprano melody.

You can hear them all the way up here, crying out to their Creator. Singing a never-ending song of His faithfulness.

“The Lord has promised good to me

His Word my hope secures

He will my shield and portion be

As long as life endures.”

-Amazing Grace, Chris Tomlin

I can’t think of a better place to be on my birthday than right here, 39,000 feet in the air, joining in the song.

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