Got Wine?

Is there anything more infuriating than job hunting? During my recent stint, I found myself inwardly screaming, “Serenity now!” à la Jerry Stiller an unfortunate amount of times each day. You first have to find something you’re qualified for – but not too qualified for – that you can imagine yourself doing for more hours than you spend with your family through the week. Then, when you find a match approaching that, you have to craft a cover letter in which you present yourself as strong and desirable but not arrogant, recognizing all the while that you might have just wasted hours of your life because the employer might not grant you an interview or even acknowledge your existence.

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Humbling.

After several weeks of applying and stressing and generally whirling like a dervish, I was invited to interview at a nearby high school. The minute I left the office, I knew I had the job. They even called a day earlier than promised to offer it. Then came the proverbial fork in the road.

Just a few days earlier, I had told my man that my perfect job would be writing, teaching, and counseling. So while this job offer at the high school would easily pay the bills, it wouldn’t let me go confidently in the direction of my God-given dreams, to borrow from Thoreau. More importantly, my pastor always says, “When you have to make a decision, look for Jesus and run hard that way.” I know Jesus is at that high school, but I didn’t have the sense he was calling me to join him there. And yet, turning the offer down meant passing on a tantalizing amount of comfort and safety. I prayed hard and felt like the answer was no, so I called and thanked them for the opportunity but declined.

As soon as I obeyed my Lord, the heavens opened. The day after I called HR with my answer, a local university asked me to teach writing for them this fall. The day after that, my own school hired me in its work-study program. So I turned down the comfortable option, but then Jesus gave me exact job I wanted: I’ll be teaching, writing, and studying to be a counselor this fall.

I’m not the first one to be scared because Jesus asked me to do something that, on first blush at least, made no sense. Think about those servants at the wedding at Cana in John 2. Jesus asked them to dip water out of a jar and take it to the master, knowing they could lose their jobs or lives if they displeased the boss. Imagine how terrifying that would’ve been, taking water to the master, who was expecting wine. But Jesus 1) does not always ask us to do the thing that makes sense, and 2) never lets us down. As it turned out, the master of the wedding evaluated the water-turned-wine as the very best from the whole event. Likewise, Jesus gave me the very best situation for this coming fall, the “perfect job” I described days before Jesus made it happen.

Another benefit of obedience is that it cleanses you of pride. It’s impossible to boast about a gift someone else gives you. Since it results solely from the grace of the giver, you know it had nothing to do with you. Maybe that’s the reason that Jesus asked the servants to take water from the thirty-gallon jars meant for ceremonial washing (John 2:6). Obeying him cleanses our hearts.

If you do obey the Lord, you can expect peace, knowing you did what you were asked by Someone who never abandons you. Intimacy with God is also cultivated when you know you heard from him and showed your devotion by changing your course. But another incredible result of obedience is a deluge of blessings (Deuteronomy 28:1, 2; Luke 11:28; John 10:10b). Since the servants chose to obey, they got to witness the first miracle of Jesus. Not only that, but their obedience blessed everyone around them: all the invitees enjoyed the “best wine yet.” And in that moment those servants must have felt freedom too from their fear and unbelief.

So there’s only one question left: how do we obey? Mary says it best, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Blessedly, it’s not always as frightening as turning down a job. Sometimes it’s paying tithe, exercising self-control, speaking gently when you’re angry, or choosing to spend some time with him instead of letting your Bible gather dust. Regardless of what he asks, you can trust him. He’s good, he’ll dump blessings on you like water from a thirty-gallon jar, and he will never abandon you (Matthew 28:20). Just do whatever he tells you. You’ll end up with a full glass of the best wine ever.

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Patterns.

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In the first grade, I failed at patterns. The worksheet asked us to color a series of shapes in a red-blue pattern, but that bored me. Instead I colored mine teal-violet-violet-teal-violet-violet – a pattern, to be sure, but the wrong one. My teacher not only gave me an F for the assignment but also refused to let me leave during bathroom break. The anger on my mom’s face when I told her about it that afternoon might have been amusing had it not been so terrifying.

Still, it is of vital importance that we get our patterns right. Like a quilt is composed of its patterns, we humans are composed of patterns too. A repeated choice to numb pain with alcohol creates an alcoholic. A repeated choice to overeat in loneliness creates a food addict. A repeated choice to light up creates a smoker. The patterns make the person.

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Not only that, but our patterns end up manifesting themselves in our children too. They do what we do. That scares me a little; I know how often I fall short of perfection. However, blessedly, this is a biblical concept, which means there’s hope attached. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul thanks God for Timothy’s mom and grandma, who passed down their faith, establishing a pattern of Godliness for Timothy. They were examples to him of how to live wisely, and they also raised him in truth and love. We can do the same, constructing the same type of patterns within ourselves and our children. If our children can be persuaded to scream when angry because that’s how they see it done, they can also learn to be patient when angry if it happens around them. Paul says that’s what teaching is for in the first place – building patterns for living. In verse 13, he tells Timothy to “keep the pattern of sound teaching with faith and love in Christ” (NLT, emphasis added). We’ve got to show our children how to live according to Godly patterns.

Some transparency: in my story, what has most often kept me from the patterns Jesus wants is a belief that I have no self-discipline, as in, “I’d eat better, but I just can’t seem to stop.” That often leads to a second, more detrimental belief: “It’s just who I am.” But that’s not Godly. First Timothy 1:7 says, “The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.” It’s not a quality you have or don’t; it’s part of the Spirit given to you by God. If you have him, you have self-discipline. Self-discipline for the Christian is like quad muscles: you’ve got them already, but you have to exercise them if you want them to be strong. You can get your patterns sorted out. You can stop yelling when you’re angry. You can find another way to deal with boredom. You can end any bad habit or any destructive pattern. Jesus gave his life to secure freedom for everyone (1 Timothy 2:6), which means you’re in.

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In addition, I’ve spent a lot of time believing that “one piece of chocolate won’t hurt.” It seems many of us fall prey to this: “one cigarette won’t hurt,” “one porn film won’t hurt,” “one beer won’t hurt.” And maybe it won’t (although these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA), but the pattern you’re setting up will. The pattern of all that chocolate, all those cigarettes, all those hours of porn, all those beers, all those moments spent killing time when you could be talking to Jesus…those will eventually hurt. In fact, they’ll eventually destroy.

Know what I’ve found to be even harder? When you know all that, and you even keep trying to change your patterns, but your efforts produce nothing. Simon Peter, the day he met Jesus on the lake, had been trying all night to catch fish, and nothing had worked. Every fisherman’s technique he knew failed him. Then, Jesus said, “Try one more time. Row out to the deep water and give it one more go.” Simon says, “I’ve already done that. But hey, if you say so.” He rows out and, boom! More fish than he and his partner can lug into the boat. (The story is found in Luke 5.) That’s the power of obedience: it can change your patterns. You’re trying, you’ve seen yourself fail repeatedly, and Jesus says, “Just one more time.” When you respond, “Okay, if you say so,” it will work. It will. It still may not be a straight shot from sickness to health, but you’re headed in the right direction. Just take his advice; he’s Jesus, so he’s right.

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It probably goes without saying that you won’t ever get your patterns right all by yourself. It’s not because you’re weak. It’s not because you’re a failure. It’s because you’re human, a condition that’s not going away. But God has “unlimited resources” (Ephesians 3:16) to help you follow a different pattern.

And we have to – we really don’t have a choice if we’re going to be followers of Jesus. It’s part of “training for holiness,” as Paul labels it in 1 Timothy 4:7, 8. Paul knows we won’t get it right the first time, just like you’re not ready to participate in the Iron Man until you’ve spent a considerable amount of time training. We are called to holiness, and that’s a tall order. But we’ve also been equipped for it by a God with unlimited resources. Besides, imagine what that would be like: complete freedom from the pattern you’re so tired of following.

So maybe give it one more try. See what happens if you row back out one more time. Jesus will make sure you have everything you need to change your patterns. Jesus will set you free.

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Live free.

My friend S said something the other day that changed the game: “The opposite of afraid isn’t calm. It’s joyful.” She was telling me about a scary time in her life in which she realized that being calm is only the midpoint. True trust in God leads all the way to the other end of the spectrum – joy.

Historically though, joy has not been associated with the Christian life. Missionaries talk about suffering for Jesus. Lookers-on fear that if they became Christians, they couldn’t have fun anymore. Few pictures depict joyful-looking Jesuses.

Frankly, I get it. At first blush, the Bible seems to be loaded with rules. When you get saved, you give up your “freedom” to live life however you want in order to be given a Bible-sized list of rules. Don’t get drunk. Don’t have sex with someone you aren’t married to. Don’t hate your enemy, even the ones who hate you. Don’t eat the meat of animals with cloven hoofs. Come on.

Yet in John 8:36, the Bible famously declares, “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (NLT). And 1 Timothy 2:6 says that Jesus “gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone.” If this “freedom” comes with so many rules, what kind of freedom is it really?

To say Jesus gives us “freedom from sin” feels disingenuous. Romans 3:23 says everyone has sinned. I don’t know about you, but I, a “free” Christian, still sin an awful lot. Besides, to a skeptic, freedom from sin 1) doesn’t matter, and/or 2) isn’t desirable. And yet: Jesus wouldn’t die to secure something for us that wasn’t desirable. So there must be more to it.

Here is what I believe: Jesus purchased us freedom from certain destruction. Sin destroys. Whether sexual sin, monetary sin, relational sin, or one of the “seven deadly sins,” engaging in it causes us to lose relationships, peace, health, trust in others, money, and so forth. Any addict or recovering addict will readily admit the truth of that statement. Try going through life as I did, expecting food – food! – to fill your emptiness. It doesn’t. It costs you energy, health, money, time, and dignity. Or perhaps try to fill yourself with frenetic energy, staying busy, worried, and stressed all the time. Try pride. Try sexual sin. Try over-spending. Try numbing with Facebook, television shows, smoking, being bored, and general time wasting. These things all destroy. They destroy you, the trust others have in you, the relationships you’re in, and all manner of your health.

But Jesus – Jesus pours into you. He brings you abundantly joyful life (John 10:10). He replaces your fear with peace (Matthew 6:25-27) and joy (Luke 2:10). He fills your empty places with good things (Luke 1:53). He brings you hope, even in the most hopeless circumstances, because he makes everything new (Revelation 21:5), and he will accomplish in you what he set out to accomplish (Psalm 138:8). Every single wonderful thing that has ever happened to you has come from him as a gift (James 1:17).

So the freedom Jesus brings is not a list of rules. He gives you the freedom to enjoy your life, to not be bound up in things that don’t satisfy. He brings you a ticket out of consuming worry. He brings you deliverance from addiction. He introduces you to a life of completeness and fullness for all those empty places. He doesn’t take away the consequences of sin, but he gives you another option: himself. Without him, you can’t know the freedom of complete inner calm, inexhaustible joy, and deep wisdom for the most harrowing storms.

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Specifically for me, this has begun to mean freedom from perfectionism. My personality is as achievement- and perfection-oriented as they come. I am the firstborn of two high achievers, so there was no escaping this. I spent decades petrified at being anything other than perfect. It’s no way to live, folks. You’re stressed and frustrated with yourself almost all of the time.

Then, this January, the third time my Counseling Systems class met, I was assigned a huge project due the next week. Being new to the program and to psychology in general, I was terrified at the thought of turning in such an important project so soon, so I promptly scheduled an appointment with the professor. I sat on the couch in her office with a list of questions intended to help me perform perfectly. After hearing her patient answers, I was still scared to death, and the stress squeezed itself out as tears, my paper blurring in front of me.

She then shared with me a part of this truth about Jesus bringing us freedom. “Listen,” she said, “you can’t thwart God’s will with a less-than-perfect project or exam, even if that’s what results. You aren’t that powerful. If it’s God’s will for you to be here, you’ll succeed when you give him your best effort. You don’t have to be perfect.” Slowly, so slowly, I have found freedom from (most of) my perfectionism. God didn’t ask me to be perfect, and he promised to accomplish his work in me no matter what. I’m safe.

Believe me, I was skeptical of this “freedom” too. But he really did purchase actual, true freedom…for everyone (1 Timothy 2:6). In Jesus there is freedom from “hustling” for approval, as Brené Brown puts it. In Jesus there’s freedom from fear (2 Timothy 1:7, 1 John 4:18). In Jesus there’s freedom to hear the truth (cf. John 8:43). In Jesus there’s freedom to keep your joy, no matter what happens, because you know it will all be okay in the end (see Revelation and all the Gospels). In Jesus there’s freedom from all the junk that comes from you trying to meet your own needs – freedom from all that destruction and anger and sadness and hustling and shame. That’s what freedom is and that’s what you get with Jesus.

Tell that to your list of rules.

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Strollers.

One of my favorite things to do with Anna is to walk around the university. The campus itself is gorgeous, but there’s also the park with the creek that attracts beautiful mallards. She points out every one, as well as every dog, child, ball, or brightly colored item. She loves it when we’re the only ones on the path for a few yards and I push the stroller in a zigzag pattern. She loves it when I randomly roll the stroller back so she’s looking directly up at me. She giggles and reaches for me, and I steal a kiss.

I thought the other day, “If God and I were taking a walk, what would it be like?” I realized, almost immediately, that the only reason I can be the kind of parent I am, eliciting as many giggles and cuddles and kisses as possible, is he is that kind of parent. I’m made in his image – I’m his daughter – so we resemble each other. I laugh and snuggle and delight in my daughter because I’m like Abba. And he’s infinitely better at this parenting gig than I am. He gets even more joy from me than I do from Anna. He loves me even more than I love Anna. In fact, Zephaniah 3:17, one of my favorites, even says God dances and sings over me. Over me!

All of a sudden, I felt safe.

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Sky Diving.

I’ve given so much advice in the last thirty years, not all of it solicited. Most especially, I’ve told so many people to “trust Jesus.” I thoroughly meant it when I said it, filled to the brim with conviction. If you’re one of the people I’ve said this to, I still stand by it.

But theoretical faith is easier for me than faith in practice.

For me it’s like this: I have a history of making mostly good choices. Of course, I’ve gotten it wrong from time to time – very wrong sometimes – but generally speaking, I choose well. I use my brain to look at a situation and take appropriate action. I do what makes sense, and decent or good results typically follow.

But Jesus is not about “decent” or “okay.” Jesus is about billowing, fulfilling, bubbling richness. That’s how I know that while Jesus has watched over me and kept me safe, I haven’t always put my trust in him. I have relied more heavily on the gifts he’s given me – intellect, wisdom, and logic – than on his complete omniscience. To this point I’ve lived a smaller life than I could have because I haven’t trusted God to guide me through anything big enough to scare-excite me (with the recent exception of embarking on a counseling degree). Certainly my own mental faculties hold an important place in decision-making, but they’re not fulfilling on their own. They can’t guide me to the places that dwarf me, places where God’s power becomes visible.

In this season of life in which I have no job lined up after July 3, no scholarship to continue school, and no idea what the future holds in general, it’s as if Jesus is forcing me to learn what trusting him really means. Trusting him is not just making logical decisions. He’s led me to the open door of the plane and said, “Okay. Let’s do this.”

Terrifying! My head knows he’ll come through, that he’ll be here all along. But my heart is looking at that open door thinking, “[Censored]!” Yet he’s trustworthy. That word “trust” comes from the Middle Ages and originally meant “to make strong and safe.” You can trust something strong and safe. Really, you can only trust something strong and safe. Luckily, that’s Jesus: strong, safe, and in possession of all knowledge and wisdom.

Deep breath. Let’s jump.

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Hot Water

I’m not so much on the science, never have been. It explains away so much of the poetry in life. I remember being actually sad in the third grade when we learned that rainbows were merely light passing through water. I’d rather them simply be a sign from God, like in Noah’s story, rather than banal scientific fact. Same with flowers that spring up where you didn’t plant them. Why do we have to attribute that to bird poo? In my book, they’re just a beautiful surprise from a romantic God. My distaste for demystification goes all the way back to my very young days in which I was amazed at how the insides of an egg went from soupy to solid after some time in hot water. How could something so simple bridge the difference between splat and boing? How could the possibility of bouncing exist in the same egg that minutes before had been such a mess on the inside?

I want to think this is what trials, the “hot water” in our lives, are for: to get us from being so easily splattered to people who bounce. If we’re supposed to equate problems with “great joy” (James 1:2), it had better be for something worthwhile like that. Personally, I am not holy enough yet to respond naturally to trials with joy. I will not be joyfully cheering if my car explodes tomorrow. But…to see the grace of God while I rebuild my life, that would produce joy. Albeit slowly, I’m guessing.

In Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace, he claims God gives away grace in a way that is “almost wasteful.” It’s sloshing out of the too-full bucket with every step. In fact, this is how God gives everything. The disciples needed some fish. When they did as Jesus suggested and threw the nets over the other side, “they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it” (John 21:6, NLT). A crowd needed dinner. Jesus created so much that everyone ate and twelve baskets of leftovers were collected (John 6:13). You need a Savior who loves you. The love of Jesus is so wide and so long and so high and so deep that it’s literally impossible for the human brain to understand (Ephesians 3:18). You have a life, but Jesus offers you one that is “richer and more satisfying” than anything you’d have by following your own desires (John 10:10b). Jesus is all about infinitely more, fuller, bigger, greater, wilder than you can ask or even imagine (Ephesians 3:20). It’s not just that Jesus is all you need; he’s all you need and a billion percent more.

If the hot water fortifies your heart and mind and the fortification of your heart and mind allows you to bounce, then I suppose I can stand the heat. As Dallas Willard wrote, God’s “overriding concern” is for my joy, and it’s clearly more fun to bounce than splat.

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Eight Things You Have to Stop Saying to Women Who Struggle with Infertility.

Last month I wrote a paper about counseling women who struggle with infertility. Having received that diagnosis myself and living through multiple miscarriages and failed attempts at pregnancy, it’s a pain I know much more intimately than I would like. It’s also a pain God is redeeming by allowing me to study counseling. I hope one day to sit with women who experience this sorrow, comfort them, and let them know so much joy and magic are out there for them when they’re ready. Here are eight things I believe no woman in this situation should ever have to hear (and also four things I bet she would love to hear).

  1. “God has a plan for you,” “God gives us the desires of our heart,” or any variant of any Scripture. Like you, I believe these things too. If the woman in your life who is struggling with infertility is a Christian, then she believes them too. But when the plan she has always dreamed of is stolen, she doesn’t want to hear Scriptures, even if she believes them. She’s confused and heartbroken; platitudes, even Scriptural ones, aren’t helpful. When Jesus comforted people, he did not spurt Scripture and leave it at that. He cried with them (John 11:35), affirmed them (Luke 7:9), and spoke gently to them.
  1. “I couldn’t have a baby for years, but now we’re on Miracle #2!” That’s great for you. But it feels like you’re rubbing it in her face, not giving her hope.
  1. “Everything happens for a reason.” Where is this in the Bible? We do know that God works out everything for the benefit of those who trust and love him, but she doesn’t want to be told that right now. She’s hurting, and it feels like you don’t care when you say things like this instead of putting your head on her shoulder and crying with her.
  1. “You can always adopt.” She knows. She might decide to later. She’s heard the same stories you have about how beautiful adoption can be. But if adoption isn’t in her heart, it won’t suddenly change her countenance for you to bring it up. She won’t say, “Oh, you’re right! I never thought of that!” She’s dealing with jealousy, confusion, fear, anger, grief, shame, stress, and probably other painful emotions. Right now – and maybe always – adoption sounds to her like raising someone else’s child, not being a mother.
  1. “Just relax, and it will happen.” Sure, there’s science to back up the fact that plenty of women have conceived after it seemed all hope was lost. But telling her it’s her own fault that she hasn’t yet conceived because she’s too stressed isn’t a welcome theory. A little wine and a bath won’t cure grief. She needs support while her heart finds its way.
  1. “My kids fight all the time / cost us so much money / still don’t let us sleep through the night.” She would love to hear kids fighting in her house! She would love to have a baby who wakes her in the middle of the night! Even though you’re trying to tell her “kids aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” you know you would never trade yours, and so does she. It’s like complaining that you have to take your Lamborghini to the mechanic.
  1. “Never give up hope!” Here’s the truth: she might never have a baby. Neither of you know what will happen in the future. Let her deal with the uncertainty on her terms. She might choose to keep trying to get pregnant or she might not, but that’s her business, not yours. 
  1. “I know how you feel. My cousin/sister/etc. couldn’t have children either.” Unless you have been diagnosed with infertility – actually had the sentence leveraged on you by a medical professional – you don’t know how she feels. Fearing you might not be able to have children doesn’t count. Having a relative who couldn’t have children doesn’t count. Taking longer than you wanted to get pregnant doesn’t count. No one knows how she feels except Jesus and the people she chooses to open up to. Let her tell you how she feels if she wants to.

Four Things a Woman Struggling with Infertility Might Love to Hear.

  1. “This isn’t fair.” Let her know she can vent her anger at the situation, even at God, if she needs to. It really isn’t fair that some teenagers get pregnant without trying or wanting to and some wives/stepmoms/aunts/Sunday school teachers/etc. are ready and deeply want to, but never conceive the first time. It’s not fair that she, this woman who so desperately wants to experience motherhood, isn’t “getting her heart’s desires.” Let her work through it.
  1. “If you don’t feel one speck better tomorrow, it’s okay.” When the third specialist confirmed my diagnosis, it seemed my some of my church acquaintances wanted me to starting getting over it immediately. Witnessing grief can make people uncomfortable. I went through times of hope, times of anger, times of feeling stolen from, times of jealousy, and I would’ve loved for someone to say, “If a bad day turns into a string of bad days, I’ll still be here. I won’t lose patience with you. This is hard, and it’s okay that it’s hard.”
  1. “I am here for you.” Don’t say it unless you mean it. But if you’re willing to truly walk through the darkness with her, she would be grateful. It’s a hard thing: if you say this, you’ll have to be ready to let her feel her feelings in all their intensity, call you at 11:00 p.m. because she read someone’s Facebook post and got insanely jealous, question her faith in front of you, and cry with her on Mother’s Day. But if you mean it, she could certainly use a friend who is willing to understand her.
  1. Nothing. Just hug her.

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