This Is Not Heaven

61555202_676562199467770_2025329413687607296_nThis time of year is spectacular in Southern Ontario with its breathtaking array of flowering trees. There’s magnolias in all their splendor, the heavenly scent of lilacs, and cherry blossoms that take your breath away. The birds join in nature’s show adding songs that span daytime and reach into dusk.

Yet however fragrant the blooms, however sweet the birds’ chorus, all of this is just a mere scent of heaven. Anything of any beauty we experience here is only a small taste of things to come.

Amid these fleeting pockets of beauty and moments that take our breath away, we’re aware that the here and now is not heaven. Alongside the beauty, there’s heartache and hate, pain and poverty, tears and turmoil. There’s darkness that displaces light and depravity that dipells hope. Sometimes, despite the fragrance of heaven, the next breath is difficult and painful.

The world aches and our hearts throb, yet we try to replicate heaven on earth. We seek comfort, perfection, and beauty while desperately avoiding pain. We numb ourselves to distract the discomforting soul sores or the courage that it would take to face them. As a result we’re addicts clinging to cheap imitations of heaven while trying to break free of our various pacifiers. We reach for anything that will displace the pain for a while, silence the desperate cry of our hearts, or fill our empty places while running from the very thing that offers us the heaven we seek.

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No matter how beautiful the flowers, how idyllic a moment, how much a vacation feels like paradise, or a person like perfection, all pales in comparison to the real deal: knowing Jesus. It’s that friendship that fills the heart holes, heals the hurt, wipes away the wounding, and purchases the paradise you’re longing for. But to find it we need to release our misguided grip on the here and now, stop trying to fabricate heaven on earth, and reach for the promise—the person—of Jesus.

When we do, all that once seemed so important will lose its shine. All that we use to deal instead of heal will lose its lustre. This is how the apostle Paul put it: “Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)

Strangely enough, heaven comes down—bursts right into the imperfection, heartache, futility, and falsehood, answering the groans of humanity with a healing love. A kind of love that makes room for the mess of this place, while cleaning up the garbage in our lives. In Jesus, we find the answer to our deepest needs, peace in the imperfection, deep joy despite circumstances, and the promise of a heavenly home.

What would it take for us to loosen our grip on the things of this world, to trade in the comforts we’ve tucked around our lives attempting to buffer the blows and ease the pain? In an act of faith we can reach for—or return to—Jesus and let him be the peacemaker and joy-giver of our lives.

This week’s song: “What a Beautiful Name”

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  1. What are you doing to numb the pain, fill the void, or find happiness? Is it working?
  2. If not, try Jesus. He’s been the answer to my deepest needs.

 

 

 

 

A Eulogy for My Best Friend

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This Easter weekend, I’d like to introduce you to someone I’m most fond of. He may be the most misunderstood man who ever lived. But I love him for it, because he’s probably the only man who didn’t care one bit about any of that. And because he didn’t care about what others thought of him, he was unswerving in his life’s purpose.

He didn’t get in the way, like some religious people of his time, and block others from seeing God. He showed up in unlikely places—often with the unpopular—and pointed people to his father. Instead of harsh judgement and criticism, he honoured everyone: men, women, and children, and reached out to those on the outskirts of society who would have appeared unholy, unworthy, and labelled sinners by the “religious”. He showed great compassion and said they were the ones he came to call (see Luke 5:32). He offered healing, grace, love, hope, and peace to anyone who would listen and even offered his very life. He gave all, for all, until his last breath.

He was the most unselfish person the world has ever known. His life was lived for his father’s purposes for the sake of others. Every place he stepped, every action he took, every word he spoke was for another’s benefit. His mission was clear: to show God’s love in a myriad of ways so all could see, hear, and understand his father’s great mercy and love.

The beauty of his unfathomable life is that none of it was typical—nothing you’d expect of a king. That was part of the problem. People found his humanness and humility unfitting. It was difficult to take him seriously and hard to accept that he wouldn’t fit their preconceived idea of God. Those who had spent their whole lives waiting for him, missed him. Those who should have known better, crucified him.

This is how one man explained him:

“He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.”  ~ Isaiah 53:3

In the end, even his closest friends scattered. He died utterly alone, and it appeared his thirty-three years on the earth had amounted to nothing. But I adore the way looks are deceiving, and more than that, how his heart-wrenching obedience changed everything. Because he suffered the most horrific death known to humankind, I was offered a second crack at life—a chance to surrender the life I deemed so dear for a new one with him.

He once said: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” ~ Matthew 11:28-30

And there it is, with him I live freely and lightly; the heaviness of all the things I wasn’t meant to carry handed over. My burdens lifted, my sins wiped out, and my mind renewed. All the former things fade in importance for the friendship found in him. And as the load is lifted, love fills the deadened creases of my life. This same love brings with it a breath of freedom and joy, and peace that ignites hope. You can’t describe his beauty. It’s something to behold.

He moves into our tired lives when we let go. But it’s not easy—the letting go. You see it at the cross, this refusal to release. Some hanging on tightly to their position or praise, others hanging on to disbelief, and others to the material things of this world, grasping at anything that seems too precious to leave behind. Because what is known feels safer than launching into the unknown, even if the known is mediocre at best. But all the praise, position, money, best behaviour, or good deeds count for nothing if I reject him.

His radical, life-altering offer is extended to all. No one left behind. No matter where you come from or what you’ve done, you aren’t excluded. His forgiveness is a free, unearned gift, and when you receive it—believe in and trust him—you’re renewed for today and preserved for eternity.

You’re beautifully and unconditionally accepted and adored by the creator of the universe, all because one Easter, over two thousand years ago, Jesus died for you.

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God loves you. There isn’t a thing you can do, or not do, to earn his love. With a simple prayer, you can receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and step into tomorrow with him.

Learning to Fight

My husband and I learned how to fight. This seems like a bad idea, but there are some substantial advantages to mastering techniques for conflict resolution. By virtue of being human, there will always be possibilities for disagreements with others. It seems marriage is full of such opportunities.

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Ralph and I have been married for twenty-six years, but while dating, we had to overcome contrasting upbringings and approaches to conflict. I was raised in a polite British philosophy where I often heard, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” In theory, this is rather lovely, but when applied to conflict resolution, it results in generous amounts of “sweeping things under the rug”.

My husband’s family is German. They got things out in the open, forgave, and moved on. During a conflict, my silent treatment, or disappearance from a tense room, shut down communication. Eventually, I saw that my tactics were ineffective, and began communicating by facing things head-on. Generally, for most things to improve, it takes undoing poor habits and mastering new ones. Such was the case for fighting well.

Whether a spouse, family member, colleague, or friend, we will be confronted with opportunities to fight and forgive well. When we face disagreements, or experience hurt at the hands of another, it’s easy to become offended and get angry. The key is to not grow embittered, carry that wounding around with you, or worst of all, shove it under the rug.

Fight for relationships that are worth fighting for. Instead of withdrawing or rebutting with silence, develop the habit of forgiveness. This doesn’t mean we excuse the behaviour or pretend it didn’t happen. We acknowledge the wrong done, communicate how it made us feel (if possible), and then forgive—independent of whether an apology is offered.

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Ralph and I – 2010

Forgiveness is a loving act both toward ourselves and others. It’s saying, what you did hurt me, but I refuse to let it rule me. In a fearless act of love, you forgive and in doing so, it’s as though you’ve covered over their fault so that it’s no longer visible. It’s probably the only time it’s a good idea to cover up something. In the meantime, you’ve secured your freedom. You’ve freed yourself from the weight of carrying anger and bitterness and can move forward in soul-settled peace.

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

This courageous and almost contradictory behaviour—just as learning to fight appears at first glance—brings us close to the heart of God. Christ’s death meant we were loosed from sin and fully forgiven. When we behave in like manner, laying ourselves down for others, and beautifully offering a cover of forgiveness for their shortcomings, we are behaving like our Father in heaven. Here’s some helpful instruction: 

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

Forgiveness doesn’t mean giving others a license to repeatedly mistreat you. You still need to set healthy boundaries and remove yourself from toxic people or harmful situations. Forgiveness simply means you release offenses, and, as a result, remain free from others’ baggage.

Forgiveness isn’t easy. It’s not a one-time effort either. For me, forgiveness often looms like an unscalable mountain threatening to block my journey. But nothing worthwhile happens without fighting for it, or at least applying focused effort. Sometimes we need to reset our default button to bypass unhealthy mindsets or patterns of thinking.

It helps to remember that we needed mercy too. And don’t we continue to need it? We aren’t faultless. There will come a time when we hurt another—either purposely or unintentionally—and what a relief it is when this same forgiveness is extended to us. It also helps to remember we’re forgiven by God who never reminds us of our sins. The least we can do is love the same.

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  1. Make a list of those you haven’t forgiven.
  2. Pray and ask for God’s help to forgive.
  3. Go the extra mile and bless them (wish well for them).

 

 

 

Christmas is a Love Story

 

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This is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. I’d like to enjoy every moment, yet it’s easy for it be sabotaged by being too busy and distracted—a general theme at any time of year, but especially at Christmas.

There’s the shopping, the preparations, the parties, the presents, the dinners, and time with family. All of this can be lovely (except maybe the shopping), but it can also be stressful and exhausting.

The high hopes surrounding this one day can add a lot of pressure too. I typically have a picture of how this day will shake out. I should fully engage in each moment and live out of the peace and joy ever at my disposal, but it’s easy to enter Christmas exhausted and exit it disappointed when the hype failed to match the event. I wonder if Jesus’s mother struggled this way too.

Mary had anticipated her son’s birth, and then, nearing her due date, she endured a 90 mile trek on a mule’s back to register for a census in the town of her husband’s ancestors. But the hardship didn’t end there. You know the story. When they arrived in Bethlehem, there were “No Vacancy” signs everywhere. In the Christmas rush, they must have neglected to arrange an Airbnb.

At this point, I’d be on the verge of a meltdown. Between the pregnancy hormones and “this is not what I thought it would be” emotions, my husband would be walking on eggshells. Some cross words would likely spill out to the effect of: “I thought you were dealing with this!” and the atmosphere would worsen. As expected, he’d go into fix-it mode and a stable would be a less-than-ideal solution.

It’s interesting that this first Christmas resembles our Christmas. Frenzied and imperfect. I think that’s exactly how God planned it. The census, the stable, and all that surrounded the birth of Jesus was marked by hardship. Could God be trying to show us something?

The God of the universe could have provided ideal circumstances, ensured his son be born in a palace with a grand feast prepared to fittingly celebrate the king’s birth. But in his deep compassion for humanity, not only did he come humbly in human form, he experienced all that we experience, and more. If you wonder if God can understand your pain, think of Jesus—God in the flesh.

Christmas is really a beautiful love story. It’s the continued story of God declaring his massive love and faithfulness to us. It’s him seeking us, finding us, living among us, and ultimately dying for us. It was part of his plan from the beginning. All part of his extravagant love.

It’s my prayer that we replace the scurry and worry and find lasting joy in Jesus. That our hearts will be more full than our tummies. That despite the pace we will find peace. That we will love as God does: completely, unconditionally, and sacrificially.

But most of all, I pray that we will have a deep understanding of how fully we are loved. Know this: God send his son to be born to die for you. You matter that much to him. He made a way for you, amid all your personal struggles, failures, and pain, to receive the gift of salvation through Jesus.

This Christmas, I pray you’ll take hold of this life-changing, eternity-altering, heart-healing gift, and unwrap a new life in Christ.

Merry Christmas from my home to yours!

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” 

John 15:12-13

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Thankfulness

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I’m thankful for my hubby.

Confession: Fall isn’t my favourite time of year. I much prefer hot, hazy mid-summer days. I adore my garden at peak performance showing off its full glory. I relish a few lazy minutes of reading on the porch with the birds’ chorus adding to the unfolding beauty. There’s the endless, sunspun blue skies, and the warm evenings begging us to linger outside and squeeze the most out of the long days of light. Even as I write this, I’m still mourning summer’s end. 

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I’m thankful for my garden.

But its fall and, in Canada, that means a few changes. And with the changing season come a few things I could stand to be grateful for. Things like: apple cider, the smell of smoke sauntering out of hundred-year-old chimneys, the blazing leaves letting go, comical gourds, pumpkin pies, fall Mums, and cosy sweaters. Maybe you could add a few of your own.

My daughter adores this time of year and makes a fall list – traditions that she keeps each year. Among other activities, she decorates her room, visits the pumpkin patch with a friend, then painstakingly carves the perfect pumpkin once home. She makes procuring a pumpkin spice latte a must, makes a fall play list, and even dresses up for Halloween to hand out candy at our door. Through her, I’m trying to increase my affection for fall.

But no matter where we find ourselves this autumn, no matter how much you cherish the changing seasons, how amazing, or not-quite-so-amazing, your circumstances may be, the truth is we can always find something to be thankful for. Thanksgiving is an ideal reminder that we really should be living each day thankful, not just one weekend.

Here are some things I’m thankful for: a simple breath of outside air, the late-day sun on my face, a flock of migrating birds crossing overhead, a sip of warm coffee, the bite of food in my mouth before thinking of the next, and a moment of stillness in my home (like this one when no one is making a sound). I’m thankful for my dear friends who love and cheer me on, my children who encourage me to do big things, and my husband who still loves me after 26 years of intimately knowing my every fault. And I’m thankful that God, who knows me even better than that, gave His Son because He thinks I matter.

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I’m thankful for my kids.

This act of being thankful has a way of brushing the cobwebs of ingratitude away. Like the way we gripe in our childish entitlement, or the way we have mini-fits when the world doesn’t give us all we asked for. Thankfulness acts as an automatic attitude-shifter, and the everyday, moment-by-moment practice of it helps us approach our minutes with a healthier, life-giving focus.

There are times so bewilderingly dark, so emotionally or physically painful, that it seems virtually impossible to find a single thing to be thankful for. But even when the light is scant, look hard. There is always a small ray of hope shining in that darkness and lighting something of which to be thankful for – even if it is that next breath.

And, like anything, the more we practice thankfulness, the easier it becomes. What if this weekend we start, and then just keep going – this month and this year – and develop a solid habit of finding something to be thankful for each day, and especially in times of difficulty? I have an inkling we might experience an increased dose of contentment, peace, and joy.

     “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”                      1 Thessalonians 5:18

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  1. Have you made a “Thankful List”?
  2. Develop the practice of finding things to be thankful for each day and even each moment.

After the Rain – Seeing Life’s Hurts & Disappointments Differently

 

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In our youth, we race headlong into this one life filled with idealistic optimism. The world is an expansive unknown stretching far beyond us and filled with unending possibilities waiting to be harnessed. At this stage, there are no limits to what can be accomplished, no unforseen roadblocks or impending disasters, and no reason to believe our dreams will not be realized.

But then, as it’s prone to do, life happens. Some of it by our choosing, and some coming upon us as an unexpected downpour, and we discover that life isn’t perfect. After some repeated saturation, we may look at our life and declare, “This is not how I expected things to turn out.”

At this point, we often choose a pity party, sometimes even a tantrum, stomping and flailing about how unfair it all is. Or, we can towel dry our hair, gather courage and hope, and discover ways to dance despite the downpours and drink of the falling drops. Because here’s the truth: the most fragrant beauty radiates after the rain, and sunsets are most spectacular as the storm clouds recede.

Even though you never asked for any of it, even though you thought you would be further along in your journey, or imagined your life differently, this is it. No matter what has passed, or what you thought it would look like, you cannot change one single bit. This is your one life. And you have a choice. Will you let what has happened this far shape you – rearrange you if needed – to grow, to overcome, and to fully flourish?

We ignore the blessings we’ve been given when we focus on how our lives failed to unfold how we imagined, when we linger on the wreckage of what went wrong, the injustices enacted against us, or the ways we’ve let down ourselves or others. In our misperceptions, we forget this place isn’t meant to be perfect, and neither are we. This is a rehearsal, of sorts, for things to come. When the last curtain is drawn, and we arrive at our final destination, then and only then will all be as it should.

I rather adore this verse:

“The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” ~ 1 Samuel 16:7

It reminds me that using the world’s measuring stick to determine success is rubbish. That God’s measurement for a successful life looks dramatically different. It’s possible that the very place we find ourselves, and the very person you and I are right now, is just where and who God would have us be, however inglorious, unattractive, desperate, downright ugly, or devastating it may be at present. That’s meant to be encouraging!

However disappointed we are with this patch of life so far, God doesn’t see your journey in any way wasted. However hard we buffet life’s storms, however unwelcome we make trials, even downpours can usher in beauty, refine character, and construct in us an enduring peace and patience the likes of which we had yet to know, not to mention prepare us to walk with added fury – a true force to be reckoned with – for the next leg of our journey.

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I like to think God looks at us – and our lives – rather like we used to as a child: full of possibility and hope, and without limits. And maybe, just maybe, from here on in, we would take His outstretched hand in ours, be led through the storms, navigated through the roadblocks and disasters, and follow Him out the other side, joining Him in puddle jumping, reclining by His side mesmerised by the sunset, while drinking deeply of the fragrant beauty of His love. Maybe then we will see our one life for the truly miraculous gift it is. Besides, by now you realize the best is yet to come anyhow.

I’ll leave you with this reminder:

“Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in the world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and the saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” ~ Ephesians 2: 7-10

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  1. Start a list of things you can be thankful for.
  2. Ask God to help you redirect your heart and thoughts to thankfulness. Develop a habit of replacing disparaging thoughts with thankful ones.
  3. Pray over each disappointment/disaster, handing it to God to make beauty out of. This may take time, but it’s worth it!
  4. Memorize a passage of scripture as encouragement during the downpours.

 

 

Strong & Free

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Right before the Canada Day long weekend, along with a sizeable crowd of hardcore people, I completed an exercise challenge called Rebellion. At the party to celebrate our achievement, I bought this t-shirt. The saying on the front resonates with me. The two obvious reasons are that it includes words from Canada’s national anthem (the country of which I officially became a citizen 33 years ago), and secondly, by working out and completing the challenge, I grew stronger and free from indulgences that might otherwise keep me off track. But a less obvious and deeper meaning for me began 29 years ago at age eighteen. Continue reading “Strong & Free”