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.

Names Matter

Part I

There are 704,352 people in Seattle, WA. I stood among throngs of them just a few weeks ago—exchanged glances, made way for passersby, bumped shoulders, watched, smelled, listened.

It was my very first time on the West Coast. In all my 24 years, the furthest I’d ever been across the country was a family trip to the Grand Canyon when I was a child. I had planned my visit months ago when my parents suggested I go visit their friends Stuart and Lisa Bell who had moved to downtown Seattle last October as church planters.

After visiting the city and hearing God’s call to relocate about a year and a half prior, the couple sold and gave away most of their personal belongings, packed what remained in a storage unit, piled their clothes and essentials in their jeep, and made their way to Seattle, WA from Bentonville, AR.

The Bells met me at baggage claim with a hug and a smile. Apart from a brief interaction when I was very small, I had never met these folks, but I immediately felt at home.

Throughout my visit, I walked all over downtown Seattle. For 20,000 steps, I followed closely behind Stuart and Lisa, watching all the way at how they interacted with their city.

Periodically, we would stop on a corner or glance out the bus window at a landmark or site, and Lisa would educate me on the history or significance it carried. It was clear every time that the couple had already fallen head over heels for their new city and had taken great care to learn its story.

When I arrived to my room in their Queen Anne apartment, there was a document for me to keep with stats and facts about Seattle and maps on the wall with markers indicating the locations of other church plants. There were only a handful.

Stuart and Lisa filled me in on the challenges of planting a church in a city like Seattle and on the challenges they’ve had personally in relocating to a place so very far away from all that was loved and familiar to them. But more than their challenges, they told me with great excitement of all the victories the Lord has shown them in less than a year. While seemingly small to those who aren’t really looking, they are nothing short of miraculous to Stuart and Lisa, who know full well that God is a God of careful detail. Every victory is an advancement of the Gospel.

Part II

There are ­­704,352 people in Seattle, WA.

On our way from the airport to their apartment, we saw only a handful of that number. We took a quiet, scenic route, and as we walked, Stuart and Lisa began to pour out all they’d learned from their city. They rattled off names of connections they’d made, where they’d met them, when they last saw or interacted with them, and what each person thought about Jesus and Stuart and Lisa’s ministry here.

We walked past a coffee shop, and Stuart stopped and peered through the window. His face lit up when he saw his friend Ben, a barista there. He waved and made a goofy face at Ben, who smiled with recognition and waved back.

We rounded the corner and made a stop at a neighborhood bookstore. When we walked in, the two greeted the owner, Erin, by name, and she acknowledged them with a smile. I browsed briefly while the Bells conversed with Erin, talking about landmarks she suggested for my visit, their upcoming trip to China to meet their first grandchild, Erin’s husband Pete, etc. They introduced me, and she chatted with me kindly as a friend of her friends.

While Stuart met to read Scripture with a believer he met recently, Lisa and I stopped in a recommended coffee shop. As we walked in, Lisa called out to the girl behind the counter. Hearing her name, the girl looked up and smiled as Lisa introduced us.

We visited a Danish bakery a few blocks over for breakfast one morning, and the owner, a young woman named Isabelle, smiled when Lisa said hello and recognized her regular customer.

“Did you hear her call my name?” Lisa asked Stuart. “She remembered me.” Another advancement on the battleground. Another stake in the earth.

On our way to the bus stop Saturday morning, a man in a neon vest exited the CVS on the corner behind us, and Stuart called out.

“Nate! Hey, man!! How’s your morning been?”

Nate smiled broadly and shook Stuart’s outstretched hand. His vest was issued by the city as a uniform to wear when he patrolled his area on the corner of Mercer and Queen Anne. When Stuart complimented him and acknowledged the great work Nate was doing to keep the area clean, his head bowed slightly, a little bashful at the encouragement, but grateful to someone for noticing.

Turns out, noticing is something the Bells are great at.

Part III

There are ­­704,352 people in Seattle, WA.

And there are 2.5 coffee shops for every thousand of them. One of my requests when I arrived in the city was for the Bells to help me find a really great cup of coffee. We ended up finding several, but the first came from a quirky place a few blocks from their apartment: KEXP, which functions as a radio station, record store, music venue, and coffee shop.

As I sipped on my mocha in my first Seattle coffee shop experience, I had a chance to pull out my current read and spend a little time in *Middle Earth.

*I’d like to take this time to forewarn you that there may be several other references to LOTR in my future writings, because it’s wonderful and poignant and I make no apologies about my love for Tolkien’s writing.

I opened the page to where I’d last left Aragorn and his captains. In Tolkien’s The Return of the King, there is a moment right before the Last Battle that stopped me in my tracks. The armies of Rohan and Gondor have ridden right up to the Black Gate of Mordor with every ally they could muster riding alongside them. Before the monstrous barrier, the captains of each unit shouted forth their challenge and, after an eerie silence, an ambassador of the enemy came riding out to meet them.

As my eyes moved over this descriptive passage, I was struck by how Tolkien identified the foe.

“The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’”

In his service and slavery to Sauron, he had forgotten his own name. His master, the enemy of all that was good and free and true, cared not even for a moment about his identity.

And I was suddenly aware of how true that rang across the pages of fiction into the realms of reality.

For we also have an enemy, a master liar and deceiver, adamantly opposed to all that is good and right and true. He fights to fill human hearts with lies about identity and worth.

“You’re not valuable.”

“You’re not noticed.”

“You’re not worth saving.”

“You’re not loved.”

“You’re alone.”

“No one knows your name.”

It’s all a trick. A lie disguised as truth designed to trap its victims in a pit of hopelessness and loneliness.

But here’s what’s true: Jesus knows every name.

He knows every name, and He values those to whom they belong. He loves each heart personally, deeply, intimately, fiercely. He died for every name and rose again so that every name might be freed from sin.

Individuals in the masses are not lost on Jesus. He sees everyone, and he calls people by name.

“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”

-Genesis 17:4-5

“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.’”

-Matthew 16:16-18

“He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ 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.’ She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means “Teacher”).”

-John 20:15-16

“Then Jesus shouted, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’”

-John 11:43-44

Names are important to Jesus.

Part IV

There are ­­704,352 people in Seattle, WA.

Jesus knows every one of them. Personally. Intimately. He looks on each face with great compassion and love. He formed them. They are His creation, after all.

And one by one, He is introducing them to Stuart and Lisa.

They know the importance of names.

They understand the value in valuing someone else. They know what it means to be loved deeply by the One who gives worth and identity to His creation.

They are in Seattle, far from home and familiarity, because He called them there.

By name.

And every time the Bells call out to a new friend, every time they remember a hometown or a favorite coffee haunt, every time they lock eyes with hurting hearts and call them by name, a thread in the enemy’s cord of lies is severed.

“You are valuable.”

I notice you.”

“The Savior of the world came to rescue you.”

“You are loved.”

“You are not alone.”

I know your name.”

Jesus sees you and loves you.”

“The Creator of all the world knows you and calls you by name.”

Part V

There are ­­704,352 people in Seattle, WA and this Sunday, seven of them met in a conference room downtown for Stuart and Lisa’s very first worship service.

The Lord is not just calling Stuart and Lisa to plant a church, but to be the church. From the moment they heard the call, and every moment since, they have been all in. Every time they leave the house, they bow their heads at the door and ask the Lord to guide their steps and orchestrate their encounters and conversations. They pause in front of buildings with “For Lease” signs in the window and ask the Lord to open their eyes for plant locations. Out loud, without making a show or drawing attention to themselves, they speak to the Lord like He is standing with them, shoulder to shoulder in the crowd. And streams of people bustle past, moving unknowingly under the sound of intercession.

Intercession on their behalf.

Stuart and Lisa have a heart for downtown Seattle, but they know no calling can be answered without prayer. It is the foundation of their ministry. And they asked me to ask you for it.

If you’re reading this and would like to support the Bell’s ministry, please consider committing to pray for them faithfully and intentionally. If you feel led to give financially, you can do so by following this link >> http://nwbaptistplanting.com/give. Simply create an account, click “Make A Donation,” and select “Pike Place Church” to give.

The Lord is moving in downtown Seattle. He is calling hearts that are far from Him–calling them to draw near and be filled. And He is calling Stuart and Lisa and the believers who met in that conference room this Sunday, to be His hands and feet. To look on the faces of 704,352 people with the love and compassion of Jesus. To take the lost around them to the foot of the cross so they can find hope. So they can find peace. So they can find redemption.

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My View From the Top of the Stairs

The year was 2012. It was a Saturday in February, and I was nestled in my warm, comfy bed. Asleep. Deep, unbothered-by-dreams-or-stirring sleep.

When all of a sudden, I wasn’t.

There was a siren! I was under attack! This was the end!

I am not a fast human by nature, but in that moment I was a jungle cat. Out of the bed, down the hall, by my parents’ bedside in just a few bounds. My parents were out of town, and my dad had forgotten to turn off his no nonsense alarm set for 5 A.M.

On a Saturday.

It was one of those obstinate alarms that grows more infuriated every second that passes without silencing it. Its volume steadily ticks upward until you start to believe you’ve been transported right inside the machine and are standing directly next to the noise-making mechanism.

I hit buttons, turned knobs, and finally just ripped the stupid cord from its secure spot in the wall socket.

I walked slowly back to my bed, but not before texting my parents a long message dripping with sarcasm and irritation.IMG_3676

For as long as I can remember, John T. Brock has set his alarm to ring at 4:30A.M. If ever there was a day when I was awake before my dad, chances are I hadn’t yet been to sleep. He cuts himself some slack on Saturdays and will sleep an indulgent half hour more.

He fixes the coffee the night before and sets a timer on the pot so it will wake when he does. He pours himself the first cup of the day. Sometimes, he’ll walk to the back room, flip on the television, and stand a few minutes in the bright glow of the breaking headlines.

By 4:45, he’s settled into his chair and has already made a significant dent in his first round of caffeine.
His chair. It sits firmly by the fireplace. Beside the left arm there sits an ever-changing stack of leadership books, commentaries, and sermon notes. To its right, a small table stands at attention holding a pair of glasses and the aforementioned cup of coffee.

This is where he sits. Day after day, month after month, year after year.

The rest of the house is asleep, but my dad is awake. And he’s there at this time, in this chair, every day to meet with Jesus.

I’ve always known about his habit of waking early in the morning. I knew how he spent that time. I knew he’d be there every day. Without fail.

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Our house is laid out in such a way that when I walk from my room to the bathroom down the hall, I walk past the staircase on my left. And if I make that trek at anytime between the hours of 4:30 and 6:30 A.M., I can catch a glimpse of my dad’s knees and feet. Sitting in that chair. Talking to Jesus.

On another dark morning a few years ago, I again emerged from the comfort of my bed, slow and groggy this time, annoyed that my sleep had been interrupted by my need for the bathroom.
When I rounded the corner of my doorway and walked past that familiar first step, I caught a glimpse of a different image at the bottom of the stairs.

And I won’t ever forget it.

Knees, not crossed gingerly in his normal seated position, but pressed to the floor in front of the chair, long legs stretched out behind him. His larger-than-life, 6’4” frame bent at a ninety-degree angle. His elbows in the chair’s seat, his hands resting on his shoulders, his forehead pressed to the fabric. Praying. Interceding. Having an all-encompassing conversation with his Savior.

Until today, he never knew I saw him in that moment. He didn’t hear me get up. Didn’t hear my feet pad across the floor. Never knew for a second that someone was watching him.

But this isn’t the first time I’ve told it.

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Not long after moving to Nashville, I found myself in the middle of a conversation about parents. About our relationships to them. About how frustrating those relationships can be. I heard story after story about damaged paternal relationships, wounded and scarred by broken promises and sinful choices.

And suddenly everyone was looking at me. It was my turn. What was my father like?

“Well,” I said, “he’s like this,” and I pointed to that moment. That image. That dark morning when I caught the most beautiful glimpse of my dad’s heart.

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I won’t ever stop being grateful that the Lord woke me up at just the right time, at just the right moment for me to take that mental picture.

Because that is a picture of my dad. Not just in that moment, but in every moment. That is the physical posture of his heart. He kneels daily to seek his God and to serve the people who have been entrusted to him.

The long list of characteristics I love most about my dad all stem from and grow out of those moments. His kindness, his sacrifice, his love and devotion to his wife, his kids, his church are all marks of a man of God. But those qualities did not arise simply because he is a pastor. They didn’t come as a packaged deal when he became a Christian. They did not manifest within him because he is what the world calls “good.”

No. They did not appear by magic or happenstance.

They came with the morning. They rode in on the sun’s tide. Day after day, new mercy after new mercy, they were carved into the fabric of his DNA. He is kind because he has a standing appointment with Kindness Himself. He is devoted because he has never gotten over the devotion of a Jewish King who came to rescue him. He is sacrificial because, time after time, he has shown up and put his knees in the dust at the foot of a Roman cross and looked up at the most beautiful sacrifice this world has ever known.

He is a good father not because he is perfect or without flaw or failure, but because he starts every day at the feet of Jesus. And of all the things I’ve learned from him, this is, without a doubt, the most important lesson, and the one I am most grateful for.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. I love you, and I’ll never be able to tell you exactly how proud I am to be your kid.IMG_2953

Hey, Nashville-I Just Called To Say I’m Sorry

In 2016, I spent a significant portion of my time fighting a love for my new home. I had arrived in January with a steel resolve to be brave in the face of all the new. I was happy to be at my job, but that was about it. Though Nashville did all it could to reach out and extend a welcoming hand, I flat refused to speak. I spent the whole first year of our relationship pining over my ex. No wonder we had issues.

I stepped into a new city still hopelessly and madly in love with Florence, AL. Nashville was a fine place for some folks to live, but it just wasn’t my type. It was merely a holding spot for me. A waiting room for me to park in while I waited for the Lord to tell me I could go home.

If you go anywhere, even paradise, you will miss your home.

-Malala Yousafzai

Home. Florence. One hundred and thirty-three miles southwest where all my people were.

I had no people in Nashville, and to be honest, I did a poor job of looking for them. I held my heart so far behind me that no one could come close. At best, I planted weedy roots that were violently ripped up once or twice a month when I pointed my car toward the Alabama state line and hit the gas. My mouth complained about my lack of ties to the city, but truthfully, my heart fiercely fought any connections. I didn’t want them, and somewhere deep inside my brain, I felt like I didn’t have room for them.

If I loved Florence with my whole heart, I had no more room for a new city to love. There wasn’t space for both.

But an affection for Tennessee was rising, quiet and strong and steady in the space beneath my chest.

I saw it first in April of last year. Green was coming back into the world again, arriving in brilliance after its hiatus. It sprung from the trees with all the energy of new hope and new life. My Cruze would come to the top of a hill on my way to work, and I’d catch a glimpse of rolling hills rising like a deep breath coming straight from the earth. And I would catch mine. In the cool stickiness of summer evenings, I watched the maple leaves from my patio flutter bashfully in the breeze. On Saturday hikes, the light would cut through the wall of trees so sharply I knew it was looking for my attention.

I stretched out on grassy lawns or scrunched in age-old pews and heard the city’s wild and brilliant heartbeat through guitar strings and voices loosed. I put my hand on the pulse of music that makes this city feel alive, like the soil beneath our feet is breathing the music from its own unseen lungs. Those of us who have to obey the laws of gravity get, for a brief moment, the chance to know what it feels like to defy it.

I’ve spent much of this new year trying to quietly apologize to Nashville. And Nashville, in all her generosity, is forgiving. Through all my foot stamping and tantrum tears last year, she never stopped singing. She never let her voice get too small for me to hear. And I’m grateful for another year to hear it and another chance to really listen.

You can have more than one home. You can carry your roots with you, and decide where they grow.

-Henning Mankell

There’s room for both, I’ve learned. There’s love enough for more than one piece of geography.

And I need them both, Florence & Nashville. I need every mile.

Florence is home. Safe. Still so very needed. Always will be. When I cross the city lines, it refills my tank with courage. Tells me with its slow drawl that it’s glad to see me. Tells me it’ll be here waiting when I come again.

Nashville is growth. Smothering with its enormity. Terrifying. Luminous. Gleaming. So welcoming and warm. It pushes me to be brave. Demands more of me than I thought I could give. Asks me to climb to new heights, but promises a great view. And it delivers.

There are a thousand ways to go home.

-Rumi

So, Nashville, I just called to tell you I’m sorry. I’m glad to be here. I’m glad you welcomed me and gave me a new place to call home. I’m glad you didn’t give up on me.

And Nashville—the view really is amazing.

 

Hey, What’s The Deal With Hot Yoga?

I do not like hot yoga.

I could’ve said this with total confidence without ever actually going to a hot yoga class. However, my aversion for this activity has a new weight to it that comes only from personal experience. I went to hot yoga recently, and judge me if you will, but PEER PRESSURE IS REAL Y’ALL.

“You might like it, Elizabeth.”

“It’s calming, Elizabeth.”

“It releases toxins, Elizabeth.”

“You’re 24, Elizabeth; try new things.”

Let me tell you something—I did not like it. I was not calm as evidenced by the fact that I texted my mother immediately following in all caps, and I believe next time I’ll keep my toxins, thank you very much.

My friends and I arrived and paid our $10 for the class plus another $6 for a mat that had been used by a number of other people who had made the terrible mistake of not bringing their own.  The instructor behind the counter greeted us with a rehearsed smile and enthusiastically asked if we were first-timers. He had all the excitement and voice inflection of a camp counselor, and I was immediately overwhelmed by the urge to blurt out all of my thoughts and opinions about yoga just to dampen his spirit. I didn’t, but discovered later that it wouldn’t have mattered, because he was an actual yoga robot who had no feelings, only an infuriating battery life.

I did open my mouth to say something quippy and sarcastic, but judged immediately that Camp Counselor Jerry here was not playing about the hot yoga business. With a smile and a serious tone of voice that gave me a feeling similar to the one I get when I see trailers for documentary style horror films, he informed us that nothing goes into the room with us except our water and our $6 piece of foam, and we were not allowed to leave the room once we entered it as the change in temperature would be a shock to our systems.

So would a heat stroke, Camp Counselor Jerry. Did that ever occur to you?

After signing away our rights to air-conditioning and {probably} contractually agreeing to not tell anyone ever about the hot yoga robot technology they were obviously using, we were given our $6 piece of trash and sent into the room.

As soon as I crossed the threshold, the heat came over and sat right on my chest, and my brain warned me for the billionth time that this was not my scene.  

Yea, well it’s too late, Brain. We can’t leave. We’re trapped in here for the next hour. Probably forever. Thanks for nothing.

However, as I scanned the already pretty crowded room, I began to calm down slightly. With the exception of a few folks sitting up and stretching, everyone was sprawled out on their mats, eyes closed, silent.

Great, I thought. I’ve been waiting for an adult version of naptime since kindergarten. I could get on board with this.

I spun out my $6 rolled up garbage mat and followed suit.

If I had been given another ten minutes, I would’ve slept through the entire class and might have enjoyed it more. Alas, that destiny was not to be.

Just as my mind began to wind down, the door opened and in walks that dumb hot yoga robot, Camp Counselor Jerry. He rudely turned off the wonderful flute-y music that sounded like it came from fairies who live under a waterfall in Sweden and began to instruct us.

We began with a breathing routine—have you ever seen the movie I Am Legend? Will Smith and his dog (RIP) stumble upon the zombie infected people all huddled in the back of a warehouse, sleeping. He heard them breathing before he rounded the corner to see them standing in their weird undead sleep circle.

That’s the scene I thought of when Camp Counselor Jerry first asked the class to exhale.

For the next hour Robot Jerry talked nonstop. If he took a breath during the class, I certainly didn’t hear it. Another reason to believe he had a fully charged battery and a skillfully hidden on/off switch.

“Pull the top of your head towards the ground as you lift your hips toward the ceiling and really engage your core while maintaining a regular and balanced breathing rhythm. Really challenge yourself to lift your leg as high as it can go and….”

SHUT UP, ROBOT JERRY.

It didn’t take long for me to be sweating actual buckets of water. My muscles shook and my mind raced trying to follow the instructions bouncing around the room at lightning speed. Lift what? Pull what? Move what? Listen, Camp Counselor Jerry. Either you want me to lift my leg or stretch my arm. I can’t do both at one time. Which will it be?

After about 45 minutes, I was sure that I had been in the room for four hours and would actually die if Camp Counselor Jerry told me to lift or pull or stretch anything else. I couldn’t tell what I hated more: this stupid class, the zombie breathers who seemed to be enjoying themselves, or the sound of Robot Jerry’s voice.

Mercifully, the class ended. The hot yoga robot handed out cool towels, told us we could stay in the room as long as we liked, and thanked us for coming. He made a small bow before his closing line: “The light inside of me recognizes the light inside of you.”

Well, guess what, Camp Counselor Jerry? My light DOES NOT acknowledge your light. In fact, my light is pretty ticked at your light right now.

I grabbed my stuff, dumped my $6 sweat trap in the basket, marched right past the rack of $45 yoga pants, and left the hot yoga world in the rearview mirror of my life. Thanks for the memories, guys, but I don’t believe that’s for me. My toxins and I will take our business elsewhere.

 

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