Wednesday, December 31, 2014

two constants

Who should I become?

A friend asked me that recently, and I've been mulling over it since

It’s a natural question for a college student. After all, we have all been told that college is preparation for life, so it makes sense to ask what we should be preparing for.

I have no idea what life after college holds for me. At the moment, I’m looking at what seems like an endless list of ideas. Some are actually viable options. The majority, like living in England or Germany with some undefined occupation that involves doing my work at cafes, are more like daydreams.

But here’s the thing: I don’t know what I want to do after college. But does that mean I don’t know who I want to be?

Even though I have no idea what career I’m preparing for, that doesn’t mean I have no idea what life I am preparing for. Sure, I don’t know any of the specifics (like where and with whom and what – all those minor details), but there are two things that I can be sure of.

The first is God’s presence. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I know for a fact that Jesus will be there.

The second is the presence of people in my life. These people may be welcoming or hostile, joyful or sad, crazy busy or relaxed, or most likely all of the above. But there will be people in my life.

So I know that I need to become someone who will live well with God and among the people whom He has placed in my life.

And then I realized something: like so many other things, who I become goes right back to what Jesus said are the two greatest commandments.

       “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
         Jesus replied: “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all            your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your              neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. So much in the world has changed since the Law was written. Many of the specifics aren’t applicable anymore, most notably the ceremonial requirements. And we have new problems that ancient Israelites would never have dreamed of. (For example, as another friend recently commented, they weren’t asking themselves whether it was ethical to use the atomic bomb or post nasty comments on YouTube.)

Yet we, like the ancient Israelites, can be assured of two things: we will always live with God and in community with people. Those things do not change. And that is why the heart of the law is about how we relate to God and to others.

Who should I become?

Someone who loves the Lord with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who loves her neighbor as herself. That's it. It's as simple, and as difficult, as that.  

Monday, October 20, 2014


"What is it that makes you feel most alive?"

My friend asked me this at dinner last night. It didn't take me long to answer her. I have, after all, been thinking about it for almost a year now.
What makes me feel most alive?
I feel most alive when I feel the love of God flowing. When He pours His love into me through His word, through the beauty of His creation, through the love other people have for me. And when His love flows through me into the lives of the people He has placed around me.
That is when I feel the most alive.
To live is to know God (John 17:3). And love, for God and for His people, is the sign that I have truly passed from the death of separation from God into the life of joy that comes with knowing Him and walking in His Presence (1 John 3:14, Psalm 16:11). As John Piper says in Desiring God, love is simply the overflow of joy in God.
That is why I feel the most alive when I feel the love of God flowing. That is when I am most alive: most aware of His life in me and His Presence with me and His joy and love flowing through me.
“Love [is the most powerful force in the universe]….There is nothing more powerful, more radical, more transformational than love. No other source or substance or force. And do not be deceived, for it is all of these things, and then some! Often folks like to dismiss it as a mere emotion, but it is far more than that. It can’t be circumscribed by our desires or dictated by the whim of our moods. Not the Great Love of the Universe, as I like to call it. Not the Love that set everything in motion, keeps it in motion, which moves through all things and yet bulldozes nothing, not even our will. Try it. Just try it and you’ll see. If you love that Great Love first, because It loved you first, and then love yourself as you have been loved, and then love others from that love…Wow! Bam! Life without that kind of faith – that’s death. Therein lies the great metaphor…Life without faith is death. For life, as it was intended to be, is love. Start loving and you’ll really start living. There is no other force in the universe comparable to that.”

~Carolyn Weber, Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir, pp. 128-129

Sunday, October 12, 2014

I Shall Not Want

I have been listening to this song on repeat for weeks now. It is so very poignant and beautiful.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Symphony

To live content with small means;
to seek elegance             
                  rather than luxury,
and refinement               
                  rather than fashion;
to be worthy, not respectable       
                     and wealthy, not rich;
to study hard, think quietly          
                        talk gently, act frankly;
to listen to stars and birds,          
                    to babies and sages,
with an open heart;
to bear all cheerfully,                
                                  do all bravely     
await occasions, hurry never.
                     In a word, to let the 
spiritual, unbidden, and         
                                    unconscious grow up                  
through the commonplace.
This is to be
my symphony.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


Most days, God reminds me of His faithfulness by scattering small blessings throughout my day. They are things that it is easy to miss, but which I do usually notice and which bring me joy as reminders of His presence and love in my life.

But there are some days when Jesus knows that I will be too frantically busy and harried to notice these small things. So He crashes down large, impossible-to-miss blessings into my day again and again and again so that I will have no choice but to remember His grace and faithfulness.

Wednesday was a day like that.

It should have been miserable. I knew that I would leave my dorm at 7:30 am and not get back until after 5 pm, miss lunch, and have to be mentally alert the entire time. In addition, I was worried about a prompt for a paper due on Monday that I didn't understand, as well as my first practice debate (I just joined debate team) on Thursday. A bit of context paper-wise: I usually have the rough draft of a paper finished a week before it is due. And there I was on Wednesday still not sure what I would write about. And it was rainy and cold.

On Wednesday morning, I told God: "I cannot do everything that I have to do today. It is absolutely impossible. I am stressed and worried and weak. Lord, I do not like to be weak, but that is part of my nature as a human being. I can do nothing without You. Help me acknowledge that freely before You and before everyone who will listen to my story. I am so needy, Lord. Fill me with Your Sprit. Empower me by Your awesome might. Guide me with Your Presence. Let Your power be made perfectly manifest in my weakness, so that when You enable me to do the impossible today I will look back and laugh with joy at Your faithfulness and glorify Your name."

And you know what? He answered my prayer abundantly beyond what I could ever have imagined. Not only did He allow me to accomplish everything, but He also piled on blessing upon blessing over and above my needs for that day.

In Physics class, He gave me a verse. I looked it up later - it's Isaiah 30:15. "In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength." Thank You, Lord. I needed that.

I felt almost from the beginning of the day that I was covered in prayer - even more than usual. I knew that my family and a few of my friends here were praying for me. I later found out that someone actually fasted for me all day. That was incredibly humbling to realize. It is an amazing thing to be so completely wrapped in prayer, and it is also incredible to see God working to answer those prayers.

A friend sent me this verse from Philippians 4: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

A line in a song in chapel expressed the desire of my heart: "Teach us to love as You have loved us."

My German professor didn't assign homework for Friday.

I was able to turn in physics homework two days early.

I talked to my lit professor about my idea for the paper coming up and she said I was on the right track.

I actually had energy to do homework after my crazily busy day.

I was constantly aware of the faithful Presence of the Lord - much more so than usual.

I went on a run in the wind and the sunshine and the cool fall weather.

And, to top it all off, I was not only abundantly blessed by the people around me and by the Lord Himself, but He also allowed me to bless others, which is one of the things that brings me the greatest joy. I was studying in the library that evening when a freshman from my floor came to me in tears, completely overwhelmed by the research she needed to do for a public speaking project. I was able to comfort her, talk her through it, remind her that all of us go through this at some point here (I had broken down in tears on Tuesday night), and encourage her to stop for the night (she had been working futilely for three hours), get some sleep, and start fresh the next day. I felt so blessed that God had placed me in the right place at the right time to minister to her.

At the end of the day, I collapsed in my room with a hot mug of tea and the company of several of my friends. As I told them about my day, I laughed with joy and amazement at the faithfulness of God to not only meet my minimum needs, but pour out more blessings on me that I could have asked for or imagined.

My God is faithful to answer prayer, to walk with His children, and to delight in pouring out grace upon grace in their lives. I knew that before this Wednesday, but that day was an incredible reminder to me of what that looks like in my own life.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

thoughts on a German hymn

On Fridays in German class, we sing hymns.

Usually they were written by great hymnists who incorporated rich theological truth into beautiful texts.

But this Friday, Herr Schaeffer had us sing something with less textual richness. He laughed as he was handing it out, and as we translated it. It is a very simple and not very well-written song from 1961 - a seemingly random list of things the author was thankful for. We laughed along with him.

And then Herr Schaeffer explained why we were singing this song.

He said that the best time in his faith was the season when he focused on thanksgiving. Somehow that strengthened his walk with the Lord as nothing else had. And this song had reminded him of the value of gratitude. So this simple little song actually comes from a profound place: a place of understanding the importance of thanksgiving to God.

That was such a blessing to me.

It reminded me that gratitude is the foundation of a relationship with God grounded in trust. Because cultivating a habit of gratitude is really cultivating an attitude of reliance on God. Saying "thank you" means acknowledging that God freely chose to give me something that He did not have to give and that I could not have gotten on my own. And after thanking God for enough things, I realize that He deserves thanks for everything - including the hard things - because there is absolutely nothing that I have that is not a gift from Him.

This is a truth that every Christian would affirm, but it only becomes real and relevant when I consciously thank Him for everything in all circumstances. It is a truth that takes a lifetime to seep into a soul, and the habit of giving thanks for all things takes hard work and many baby steps to acquire. But it is the truth that makes it possible to rejoice always and pray continually. It is the truth that enabled Betsy ten Boom to thank God for the fleas in the barracks in a German concentration camp - before she found out that the fleas were the reason the guards would not come into the barracks to harass the inmates.

When I thank God, I confess the reality of His goodness and omnipotence. And when I make a practice of thanking God in the midst of daily life, I prepare myself to trust Him when things seem to go desperately wrong. Because the same God who daily provides for my every need will not desert me in times of trouble.

This is why gratitude is essential to a thriving relationship with God: gratitude is the practical outworking of trust in His love.     

This reminder one Friday in German class came at a timely moment. Diving back into the hectic world of college life, it is so easy to let gratitude slip onto the back burner in the effort to remember everything that needs to be accomplished. But gratitude is the only practical way to remember what God has promised: He does and will provide for me, because He loves meAnd He is always with me. This is what makes life worth living.

I know from experience that my joy disappears when I focus on how crazy my schedule is. My peace also disappears in short order. My relationship with Jesus is hurt because I am so focused on all the things I have to do that I forget I cannot possibly do anything without Him. But my relationship with Jesus, my joy, and my peace all thrive when I remember that I walk through every day in the presence of a faithful, loving God who showers gifts upon me simply to remind me of His love. The practice of gratitude is really the practice of stopping to remind myself of the presence of the Giver. And the presence of Jesus is what my whole being longs for more than anything else in the world.

Danke für diesen guten Morgen: Thank you for this good Morning   

Thank You for this good morning,
Thank You for every new  day,
Thank You that I can throw
All my worries onto You.
Thank You for all good friends,
Thank You, O Lord, for everyone.
Thank You also when I can also
Forgive my greatest enemy.
Thank You for my workplace,
Thank You for every little joy.
Thank You for all that is good and light,
And for the music.
Thank You for some sadness,
Thank You for every good word.
Thank You, that Your hand
Leads me everywhere.
Thank You, that I can understand your Word,
Thank You, that You give Your Spirit.
Thank You, that near and far,
You love Your people.
Thank You, that Your salvation knows no bounds,
Thank You - I am holding fast to that.
Thank You, O Lord, I want to thank You,
In order that I can be thankful.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Jesus Loves Me

A few nights ago a group of girls from my floor sat around a firepit fellowshipping, eating s'mores, and singing worship songs. The final song we sang was "Jesus Loves Me."  Most of us have known this song since we were tiny, and we can sing it without really thinking about what it means. But Maddison, who was playing the guitar, encouraged us to remember that when we sing this simple children's song, we are singing nothing less than the most profound, deepest truth that we will ever know.

Jesus loves us.
This truth lies at the core of the gospel, and at the core of what it means to be human: Jesus loves us. This is a truth so simple that I think we can often take it for granted, while in reality it is so profound that nothing else can touch it. It is a truth that deserves to be repeated every waking moment for as long as I live, because its power is only increased by repetition. It is something that we need to remember constantly, because knowing that Jesus loves each and every one of us is what makes life worth living, and what makes loving other people worthwhile. If Jesus loves me, then I can have hope and joy and peace no matter what my circumstances. And if my Jesus poured out His life in love for the people around me, how can I do otherwise? 

This past year, Jesus' love for me and the love He shows others through me has been a theme for my life. I have a feeling that it is a theme that will continue to shape me as long as I live. I want it to sink into the very essence of my being and flow from every facet of my soul. Jesus loves us. How different would our lives be - and I'm not even talking about the world right now, just our daily interactions with the people around us - if we truly lived the ramifications of that truth? Jesus loves us.

And then I got to thinking how amazing it is that the deepest truth is not only available to great philosophers, but rather is a truth that even the smallest children can grasp with the gift of faith. Any Christian, whatever their age or background or education, knows that at the most fundamental level, the answer to the most important question is that Jesus loves us. This is not a trite saying that we mindlessly take refuge behind when confronted with the difficulties of life in this broken world. It is a truth powerful enough to take those impossible situations and trials and use them to make something new and beautiful.

Jesus loves us.

Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong.
They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.
Jesus loves me, He who died
Heaven's gates to open wide.
He will wash away my sin,
Let His little child come in.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

in His Presence

Towards the end of the school year, a friend remarked how many of his friends had said they regretted living in a blur - always busy, always occupied, not taking the time to stop and rest, care for people, and simply be present. He thanked me, because he said that observing me try to live well, thoughtfully and without rush reminded him to slow down and be present himself.

That made me feel good. All last year it was heavy on my heart to live thoughtfully, take nothing for granted, and make every minute count. I realized in a new way what it means to walk in the Presence of God on a daily basis, and realized that it is only possible to fully experience His Presence when I myself am fully present, and vice versa. Nothing chases away an awareness of closeness with Jesus more than a crazy to-do list or a preoccupation with the past or the future. But when I am fully present wherever I am, keeping my eyes wide and hands open to see and receive His gifts, that is when I am closest to Him.

So I made present my word for the year. I wanted to remind myself that Jesus is always present with me, and that therefore it is worth my while to make every effort to be fully present myself.

I succeeded, for the most part, during the school year. I think that this is due to the fact that I experienced so many new things that I was not equipped to handle on my own that I automatically was in a state of continuous reliance on God. As I went to Him for help and guidance and wisdom I walked in His Presence and in the Present. It was a sweet blessing.

But this summer I think I forgot how desperately I need and desire God's Presence and guidance and fellowship. I was back at home, in the very familiar role of daughter and sister that I have successfully fulfilled for years. We went through a big transition with a move, but that was nothing new: we have moved many times before. So I unconsciously reverted to relying on myself instead of relying on God and seeking His Presence constantly.

Through the chaos of moving I found myself longing for the stability and control of school life - a stability that I have since realized is imaginary. What I needed was not the stability and routine of a specific place, but the constant awareness of God's Presence that the Holy Spirit had blessed me with during the school year. By wishing I was back at school, I missed out on fully enjoying what God was giving me this summer - sweet, sweet time with my family and with Him.

My summer was challenging and amazing, but it would have been even more so had I heeded my lesson from last year and God's prompting to remain in His Presence and in the present. I should have resisted the impulse to think that because I had already been through similar experiences, I could assert some independence and do things for myself. I gained nothing by that - and I lost precious time.

I don't want to continue my mistake of the summer into the school year. As I dive back into life at college, I need to remember that even though college is no longer as unfamiliar as it was last year, I must seek God's Presence even more fervently. I need to seek His aid to be present this year - accepting the challenges and joys of sophomore year without wishing I could be in another place (home) or another time (freshman year). More and more I realize that my own unaided attempts to follow Jim Elliot's excellent advice - "Wherever you are, be all there" - are destined to failure. Because the past and the future can be idealized, but the present is all too clearly imperfect.

It is only when I cling to Jesus and His promise to be with me always that I can truly be present and see the beauty of the present in spite of its imperfections. Only when I cling to Jesus and His Presence will I be able to see and rejoice in the grace that He so eagerly pours out on me.

"Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matthew 28:20

Monday, August 25, 2014

Stars and Dots

I have been called a conservative, a feminist, an American, a European, an evangelical, a mystic (it's a long story), and many other things by many people. And, when those words are unpacked by the particular people that chose them, I am all of these things. But they are not necessarily how I would describe myself. In fact, I have a hard time applying adjectives to myself beyond the essentials: Christian, lover of Jesus, lover of people. Beyond that, I am too complicated to successfully describe myself with a few trite words without constructing a false image.
 For example, when the word feminist is defined as a woman who thinks deeply, who can hold her own in an argument, who doesn’t take the Biblical injunction for wives to submit to their husbands as an excuse for men to treat women like doormats, and who has a wide comfort zone, I am a feminist. However, I do not go around saying that I am a feminist, because the definition I just gave you is a pretty personalized one, and not one that most people think of when they hear that word.
The thing is, definitions matter. All too often, people either talk about entirely different things using the same terminology or the same things using different terminology. Either way, if terms are not defined confusion is the predictable result. I know from personal experience: I have a tendency to think I know what someone is saying and then to completely misunderstand them because I misunderstood their terms.
This confusion when it comes to defining terms is toxic when it comes to the terms we use to label people. Labels do have their place, but only when we realize that a person is more than the label you stick on them.
One of the books I loved as a kid is You Are Special, by Max Lucado. It tells the story of the Wemmicks, wooden puppets who spend their time sticking gold stars or grey dots on other Wemmicks. The Wemmicks who have lots of gold stars are extremely popular, and the Wemmicks who have mostly grey dots are social failures. The story is about a Wemmick called Punchinello. Punchinello is completely covered in grey dots, and is very depressed. One day, he meets a Wemmick named Lucia who has no stickers at all. It’s not that people don’t try to give them to her: they just won’t stick. She tells Punchinello that she goes to see the Maker every day, and she knows Him, she doesn’t care what the other Wemmicks think. And so, while she still possesses the characteristics that cause other Wemmicks to try to give her stickers, they don’t stick. She is not defined by any one trait – except the love of the Maker.
I think that all of us have probably glibly applied a label to someone, just as the Wemmicks apply stickers, and then never seen beyond that label to the person it describes. We miss seeing a masterpiece of the Maker when we do this. Once a person has a label, like American or conservative or homosexual or socialist or homeschooler or gardener or whatever, it is easy to stop seeing the person and only see your particular definition of the label.
The problem with a label is that while it is meant to describe someone, it often ends up defining him (or her) in our minds. And no person can be defined by one, or two, or ten labels. People are much more complex than that.  
In Anna Karenina, one character, Oblonsky, says that Levin, his future brother-in-law, is a reactionist. Levin answers to the effect that, “I never thought about what I am. I am Constantine Levin: that is all.” How often do I miss who the people in my life are because I am so preoccupied trying to figure out what they are?
I think it is okay to use words to describe people – that is one of the ways we navigate life in community. But I think that before we describe someone, we should seek to see who he is – not what he is – before God. Only after that should we carefully apply labels from that understanding, rather than using labels as a kind of shortcut (and shortcuts often turn out to be long detours) to understanding someone.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

the romantic side of familiar things

"In Bleak House I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things."
~Charles Dickens~
I think that a large portion of what sets apart great artists is the ability to see the familiar and mundane with fresh eyes. Artists like Dickens study what is familiar as no one else bothers to - and discover beauty and romance in life that no one else takes the time to see. This study of the commonplace is what makes their work so spectacular, because it enables us for a moment to remove the blinders of familiarity and see the world with the vision of wonder.
"Familiarity breeds contempt." This saying has a great measure of truth to it. When we see and do the same things day after day, it is easy to stop caring about them and noticing the details. It's like our vision is unfocused: we see what we need to in order to function, but have lost or weakened our capacity to actually see the clear, bright, meticulous detail that surrounds us. Life can far too easily become monotonous for those who are easily disenchanted with the familiar. I don't want this to be true of me.
Although discovering new places and people and experiences is one of my favorite activities, and I certainly don't want to get stuck in a cozy little comfort zone that I am loathe to leave behind me, the fact is that most of my life will be lived with some measure of familiarity: familiar routines, places, people, conversations, and classes or a job. When I do the same thing day after day after day, it takes great effort to cultivate a habitual sense of wonder.
I want to make that effort. To not limit my experience of wonder and delight to the few opportunities a year that I have to travel and explore. Those times are precious gifts that are absolutely not to be taken lightly. But I want to experience wonder and delight every single day that I walk this earth - as I go from class to class in college just as much as when I hop from city to city on vacation; as I plug away at my job just as much as when I get to pursue special projects; as I do laundry for my family just as much as when I am enchanted by the laundry hanging from the lines in small towns in Europe. And that pursuit of wonder means refusing to gloss over my everyday experiences simply because they are everyday.
I have learned that a carefully cultivated sense of wonder in my home life in no way mitigates my enjoyment of the out-of-the ordinary: it enhances it. Because when I stare up at the Alps in awe or wander through a fishing village on the Mediterranean or ride a double-decker bus in London, my pleasure is not tainted by a dread of returning home to daily life. Instead, I am able to enjoy the unfamiliar fully, knowing that I am creating a treasure of memories to take home with me as I return to the more quiet, but just as important, wonders of home.
I will never be a great novelist like Dickens. but my life and the way I live it is in a sense a work of art. I want to be able to say at the end of my life that "I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things."
Or, as Mary Oliver says, "When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

a process

It happens often, but that doesn't mitigate the wonder.

I puzzle something out - slowly think through an idea that is planted by a Bible verse, or a stray word in a conversation, or a book that I am reading, or a combination of all of the above. I think and think and come to a conclusion about a truth that I have missed, or reach deeper into the meaning of a truth that I have always known. It is hard work, but it is satisfying work. It takes awhile. Sometimes days. Sometimes weeks. Occasionally months or years.

I reach a conclusion that doesn't exactly change everything, but subtly changes the way that I view everything.

This process is fascinating and exhilarating, but also a little...frightening. Because I wonder if what I've discovered has value. After all, I'm only an inexperienced young woman, so it is natural to wonder if I'm pulling my ideas out of thin air and if they have no basis in reality. I wonder if my mind-blowing thought is just an illusion, since I have never encountered it anywhere else.

And then it happens. I start seeing the truth that I have discovered in many different places. Woven through the Scriptures. In books hundreds of years old. In blog posts from last month. In quotes I stumble across online from people I highly respect. And this fills me with delight.

It is an indication that what is so new to me, what I worked so hard to reach, is as old as the hills. This truth has been spoken by and to God's people for centuries, has changed many more lives than my own.

And it is different, more valuable, than if I had just been taught about it by other people from the beginning. It is also much more valuable than if I figured it out on my own and then never found any indication that others agree with what I have discovered. At the same time, this truth is old and confirmed and solid, but also new and exciting and personal because of the work that I did to arrive at it. I confidently claim it, knowing that it has been claimed through the centuries by those who seek what I do: a wild, precious life lived in the presence of the Father and spilling His grace out into the lives of those around me.

This pattern is a reminder that God is with me, that He loves me, that He wants me to puzzle my way to a truth by myself because the process will bring me closer to Him. Then, once He has walked me through it, He confirms my conclusion by showing me that many, many of His children have walked through this process and come to the same conclusion.

It's a pretty amazing feeling.