Look up.

“He does all things well.” – Mark 7:37

I read this verse when I need to be reminded to look up.

The first time I read it, I immediately thought of a photo I took of the sun setting over the mountains somewhere along the Appalachian trail in New York. appalachian trail

Vince and I had gone on a super intense hike that day. I was sore, tired, thirsty, hangry, hot, increasingly wary of every bug or plant that brushed against my leg, and to top it all off, the rocks we were climbing were slippery because it had just rained.

Every time we reached what I thought was the summit, I looked up, and there were only more rocks to climb. What amazes me is I kept looking up. I don’t know why. I guess I knew deep down if I failed enough to guess correctly, one of these times, I had to be right. Eventually, the climb would lead to unimaginable beauty. Some part of me, no matter how deeply buried beneath mud and exhaustion, knew there was beauty left to discover. 

Then one time I looked up, and there were no more rocks above me. Hallelujah! We had reached the top. And I only cried twice.

Here at the top, the temperature had dropped, which meant there were less bugs. And the rain had cleared the way for this restorative sunset. 

This sentence captures exactly how I felt standing at the summit, looking up at the sun sinking over the mountains to my left and the moon resting over the city I love to my right:

He does all things well. 

I didn’t want to believe that during the climb, but once we made a fire, this would be where we camped for the night. Which meant this was the view I would see when I opened my eyes that morning. And it was unmistakeable. Despite my best efforts, I could never make anything as perfect as that sky. There’s something about climbing far above everything that clears your head. 

The problem is when you have to climb back down. Everything comes back to haunt you. It’s easy to look up when you know your eyes will be met with the beauty of the sun rising on a new day. It’s harder to keep looking up in hopes of catching the sun setting over a day you might wish to forget. 

But reading this sentence in Scripture made me realize something: not only was this true 10,000 feet above my problems (okay, that may be an exaggeration), it’s true now in the midst of anything I’m going through. 

When I think about any chaos or uncertainty I’m facing now, there’s fear and anxiety, but there’s also this strange peace. The same peace I felt in the mountains. I think it’s because there’s a part of me, no matter how deeply buried, that still trusts God knows what He’s doing. I know if I keep looking up, eventually, it will make sense. There is unimaginable beauty left to discover. The climb will lead to something I never could have fathomed on my own. 

The idea that I can’t do everything on my own used to scare a perfectionist like me. But I think I have wrestled with it long enough that it has honestly become such a relief. I just don’t trust myself to do all things well. Mostly because I can point to a lot of proof that I don’t always. Which is why I have to believe there is a God who has it all figured out. When I see how He paints the sky at the end of a long day, I’m reminded. 

25.The sunsets in Tuscany are unbelievable.

You could take a photo and convince someone it’s a painting. One time, an old guy from Australia who has worked as a metalsmith living in Tuscany for 15 years told me the reason the light catches your eyes in the surreal, orange-y way it does is actually because of pollution.

The limestone along the coast is worn down by the salt in the Mediterranean Sea, and the wind sweeps the dust particles through the air, distributing them throughout Tuscany. When the light hits the particles, they are high enough in the atmosphere and small enough that it reflects to make everything look like a watercolor. Natural pollution from sulphur dioxide can also occur in the same way through releases from volcanoes and wildfires. I remember feeling sad when I first found this out. The magic of a romantic Tuscan sunset can be explained away by natural air pollution. 

But I keep looking up at them.

Maybe there’s still something magical about the fact dust particles floating around in the air only magnify the beauty of the sky there. It takes nothing away from the whole experience, except the water you drink from the tap might taste heavy. 

I was made from dust, and I’m grateful there’s someone bigger than me I can put my fullest trust in. I’m relieved to know I only magnify His beauty by reflecting all that He is. He does the hard work. He takes anything toxic that tries to cloud His majesty in my life and uses it to refine me into a more beautiful masterpiece still. What’s more, His sun rises and sets every day. Faithfully.

He is consistency, and that is the greatest gift.

Where I fail, He measures up.

In peace or chaos. Through the climb or at the summit. Whether things feel like they’re falling into place or falling apart.

I want to learn to keep chasing the steadiness of the sunrise and sunset.

I want to know how to keep looking up in hopes of catching glimpses of beauty.

And I want to trust with unwavering certainty He does all things well.

#RealTalk

You are a branch.

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I learned an honest lesson about myself last year from a church I only attended once by accident. 

That church taught me that I am a branch. 

If you think that sounds weird and hippy-ish: correct.

But here’s the thing. Finding a church I felt connected to in adulthood in the bustling city of Manhattan proved a lot harder than when I was in college amid the cornfield nestled suburbs of Ohio.

My husband and I now belong to a wonderful church and are extremely grateful, but let me just tell you, it was tough to find.

There are lots of churches in New York, so that wasn’t the problem. To be honest, the problem was me. My relationship with the church has always been similar to my dating life. I romanticize everything. I can’t accept imperfection, and I certainly can’t love something the way it is, flaws and all. I need it to benefit me. 

I am married now and still learning to let go of these things in my relationship, but I like to think I’ve come pretty far. 

When I was in high school, my pastor always quoted Charles Spurgeon, saying: “The day we find the perfect church, it becomes imperfect the moment we join.” 

He is right, but sometimes I wonder whether I’ve committed my life to proving him wrong. 

Last year, I was lamenting to some friends about my quest to find the right church. There is a church here in NYC that I’ve heard several of my friends rave about. It is one of those contemporary, mega-churches. So already, I had my doubts, because a congregation of more than a couple of hundred was outside of my comfort zone. 

I was curious after talking with my friends though, so I visited the website one afternoon. The church’s mantra is “Welcome home.”  

In Manhattan, I would guess a lot of people crave community.  You would never think that you could feel isolated surrounded by so many people and so much activity all the time, but Manhattan is big enough that it’s almost impossible to feel connected to anything at all. The thought that a place could feel like home in this city is so overwhelmingly comforting that there is no doubt in my mind why this place draws people in by the thousands. I decided to check it out.  

I have to admit I had some preconceived notions about the church before attending because of things I heard, but I tried to stay as objective as possible the first time I visited. It was a chilly October morning when I turned the corner to the location where church was being held, but everyone was still gathered outside on the sidewalk talking, laughing and hugging. I thought it was a good sign that people seemed to enjoy each other’s company so much. One of the pastors was standing outside the doors greeting everyone. 

I walked over to meet him, he clasped my hand inside both of his and beaming said, “Welcome to CHURCH!” 

He was very excited about church, which I thought was another good sign. 

The ushers inside all had vacant stares and complacently said, “Hi welcome to church” without attempting to direct me anywhere.  

I dismissed this because it was the early service and navigated through the maze of red and black concrete on my own until I found where church was being held, which was in the main room of an old Manhattan nightclub.  

Signs that said “Welcome home” were plastered on the walls. I have a tendency to sit in the back corner at these things when I don’t know anyone, and I’ll walk away with a biased opinion formulated from my half-experience of sitting in the back corner. 

I decided that I was going to make an effort to engage this time so I could form a well-rounded opinion after getting the full experience, so I picked a seat front and center. It was highly nerve-wracking, but eventually, two girls filled in next to me.

I looked around. Everyone was in vintage clothing, and they all looked fabulous and grungy at the same time. A woman was walking around greeting everyone. She recognized I was new right away and came over to meet me.  

“Glad you could come today,” she said with the same complacency as the ushers.  

I turned around to shake her hand and began to introduce myself, but she walked away before I could tell her my name. This didn’t affect me nearly as much as it should have, because it happens all of the time in New York.  People ask how you are but don’t have time to listen to the answer and don’t care anyway, so I just brushed it off. 

The worship band walked onto the stage, and the two lead singers were this guy with a man bun (I knew there had to be a man bun around here somewhere) and a girl with long, brown hair. The worship songs were amazing. It was loud and intense, and everyone lifted their hands and closed their eyes.

We sang with only our voices a couple of times, and it gave me chills. One guy in the back was praying loudly the whole time that God would fill the place, and I believe He really did. Afterward, the sermon was amazing too. My eyes actually filled with tears several times. 

Everyone seemed to genuinely want us to be there and feel loved (except for maybe the ushers who hadn’t had their coffee yet), so why did I feel slightly uncomfortable the whole time? Here’s why I thought it was: 

The church meets in a nightclub. The whole idea is that “it’s not about the place in which we gather. It’s about the reason for which we gather.” 

That is true. Church can be held outside, in a club, in a hotel, in a prison, in your house. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the reason we’re together as one – that’s church.

In fact, the pastor said during his sermon that “you won’t change the world by being in church on Sunday. You’ll change the world by being the church everyday.”

He wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t be in church on Sundays.  He was just saying that if we don’t take the lessons we’re learning in church, let them transform us and let that transformation show through in our everyday lives, it’s kind of a waste of time.

I’ve always heard things like that said in reference to places that don’t have the means to meet inside an actual church building, whatever the circumstances. It’s a great blessing to have a physical building dedicated to God where you can meet to worship Him, but even if you don’t, you can still attend church.  It counts wherever two or three are gathered in His name, and it doesn’t have to be reserved for just Sunday. 

I guess it bothered me at first that this church meets in a club because I thought the overriding theme was that it’s trendy. I think sometimes Christianity tries to appeal to a large generation of millennials by purposely meeting in places that aren’t actually churches – that are instead nightclubs, lounges, bars, cafes, basements and gymnasiums – places that seem “hipper” than regular churches. 

To those saying, “It’s not about the place in which we gather,” I would say yes – that’s exactly right. It’s not about the place in which we gather. It’s the reason for which we gather in that place. Is the reason because of Jesus, or is it because it’s trendy? 

This church is also known for its celebrity attendees, its pop culture references and its tattooed pastor. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. There’s nothing wrong with celebrities attending church, there’s nothing wrong with using pop culture to make church relevant, and there’s nothing wrong with a pastor that has tattoos. 

What I was struggling to figure out is whether the church was using those things to draw people in, or simply trusting God to just do what He does best: show up and love people. 

Sometimes, I catch myself thinking this way – saying to God, “It’s not enough for you to just win people over because of who you are, like you’ve been doing since the beginning of time. We have to dress you up and make you popular and relevant so that people want to associate with you.”  

But God isn’t concerned with being cool and relevant. He’s been uncool so many times that it probably phases him just as much as that lady dismissing me before I told her my name phased me. 

He wants our hearts. 

He doesn’t want us to say, “I like You because You’re cool and popular.”  

He wants us to say, “I love You because You first loved me.” 

I was ready to write this church off because of those observations. 

But then I thought about it and realized why I was actually uncomfortable. 

The things I picked out as imperfections are the same imperfections I see in myself. I thought about all of the churches I had given up attending and started to notice a pattern of running away when I realized that I was pointing one finger at them and three fingers back at myself.

The sermon that made me cry was actually very fitting. 

The pastor was talking about John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.”

It’s saying that God is the vine, and we get our life and breath and being from him.  The only way to do and be all that we are capable of is to remain in him.  

The pastor said that so often, we try to be the vine and make God our branch.  We try to be the center, to be in control and to manipulate God into doing stuff for us instead. 

We think spending time with God is all about praying, “Do this for me, give that to me, bless me and serve me this way.”

But in order for our relationship with God to make sense, we need to understand that we are just branches. He already knows everything we need. Spending time with him isn’t about asking from him what he already knows we want; it’s simply about being with him, enjoying his presence and remaining connected to him.  

The pastor, who is a former basketball coach, kept yelling, “You are a branch! You. Are. A. Branch!’ 

And we are.  I think we need to stop trying to manipulate God into doing what we want, and instead, trust that God knows what we need. 

We, myself included, need to stop thinking, “We have to make God cool and relevant and edgy in order for people to love and accept Him.”  

I’ve caught myself doing this many times. I find myself thinking of ways to make God sound cool and Christianity sound fun in order to get people to understand, and most of all, to get people to accept me as a Christian. I mean, I can’t have people thinking that because I go to church, I’m uncool and no fun. So I have to bring the church’s reputation up to today’s standards.

As a church, we need to accept our position as a branch connected to God’s vine, and remain in him, so that he can dictate our steps. Through him, our church will be equipped to do the work he planned for us to do, long before we were even around to do it.

Finally, the criticisms I had for this place came to light during the sermon and made me understand what people mean when they say it isn’t about the place in which we gather.

The building I was standing in wasn’t the church, no matter how church-like or un-church-like it was. 


The body of Christ is the church. I am already a part of it. 


My quest to find the right church has led to so many dead ends because I’ve been looking for the wrong thing. 

Rather than finding a non-existent perfect place of worship, I should be looking for a group of people committed to following Christ, picking themselves up and brushing themselves off when they frequently mess up, who recognize their need for His grace. 

A group that I can relate to, commit myself to loving and serving through their imperfections and allow them to do the same for me. 

I need a place that feels like my Father’s open arms I can run into no matter how badly I’ve messed up. 

I need a place that feels like home. 

And I don’t think that feeling comes from a place.

Much like that church, I’m not actually aiming to be perfect. I think I am doing some things right and some things wrong.

I’m aiming to be a branch.

If our goal is to know God, love God and help others do the same, we need to let go of this false image we try to create, accept our flaws and let our real God just be who he is, fill the imperfections and welcome us home.

#RealTalk

Control.

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-3-54-16-pmToday is supposed to be about celebrating love, but I think for a lot of people, it’s also about experiencing hurt.   

I know that is a pretty depressing thought, so you’re welcome for bringing you down just when you thought your week was starting to look up. It is only Tuesday after all, so we can’t get too carried away with our it’s-almost-the-weekend excitement quite yet. I’m just trying to help you manage your expectations.

But I think it’s an unfortunate reality that any holiday that celebrates love – Thanksgiving, Christmas, even birthdays and anniversaries – can also be a reminder of lost love.

I’m really bad at dealing with people when they’re upset.

I want to be there for them – a ray of hope in the darkness, a constant source of companionship, conversation and cookies. But really, I am awkward and shy, and I never know what to say.

So I give uncomfortable hugs, keep my distance and say cookie cutter things like:

“I’m so sorry – you are in my thoughts and prayers”

and:

“God knows what you need”

and:

“Don’t hesitate to reach out if there’s anything I can do.”

I try my very hardest, and fail my very hardest in some cases I think, to respond to pain from a christian perspective, and in the most loving way I know how.

I’ve witnessed a lot of people who are scared, upset, hurt or worried about what the future might hold for them in ways I can’t possibly imagine.

There are a lot of things I’m still trying to figure out, but there is one thing I recently learned I can do to change my perspective.

In trying to comfort those who are upset, I’ve noticed a lot of well-meaning, kind-hearted christians say something to the effect of: 

“Just remember that God is in control.”

I know I have heard those words from my own lips many times. It’s part of my cookie cutter response to situations I am uncomfortable in.

Hypocritically though, whenever I am upset, hurt, worried or scared about something, hearing that one sentence always infuriates me. And I’m not easily infuriated.

I have cringed whenever I’ve heard myself say it. For the longest time, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why.

The intentions behind the sentiment are nice, but it never gets any easier to hear in the moment.

I always thought maybe this is because I am a terrible person. But it turns out, hopefully, that’s not entirely true.

I know people aren’t meaning to upset me when they say this. I know I am not meaning to upset anyone when I say it. And I do believe it is true.

So why did it always make me so angry?

This year, I figured it out because of how Jesus responded when Lazarus died.

I saw this tweet and decided to read back through the story of Jesus and the death of Lazarus. It is a pretty moving one.

Jesus had become close with a man named Lazarus and his two sisters – Martha and Mary. When Martha and Mary sent a letter to Jesus to let him know that Lazarus was sick, He knew God was in control. He didn’t think for a second otherwise.

Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death.”

He had the power to heal Lazarus no matter what. When Jesus returned to the village of Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, He learned Lazarus had died and was laid to rest in a tomb for the past four days.

Even then, Jesus knew God was in control.

He said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”

When Martha took Jesus to see Lazarus in his tomb though, Jesus didn’t say anything. He was silent.

He only wept.

But He is the Messiah, with the ability to do anything at all – even resurrect from the dead – something He assured Martha He would do.

So why was He weeping? Didn’t He know God is in control?

As I asked myself those questions, I realized something: Jesus did know. And so do I.

Being reminded God is in control when I’m upset is meant to make me feel better, but it actually upsets me even more. Not because I don’t believe it, but because it’s a disguised way of telling me to dismiss the hurt that I feel.

Jesus never dismisses pain. He embraces it.

He hurts with me. He allows it to be real.

He eventually uses it to mold me, challenge me and strengthen me. But before that, He simply comforts me while requiring nothing of me.

He is patient with me.

He sees me wounded, and at first, He says nothing.

He is silent.

He takes my hand and weeps with me.

There is always a period of healing, but first, there is always a period where I am allowed to come to Him and just be hurt.

A fun fact I learned: The word “Christian” is derived from a Greek word meaning “Like-Christ.”

I think there are certain ways that as Christians, we can work on living up to that title, and I think this is one of them.

Before you and I find ourselves criticizing someone for being upset instead of peacefully trusting that God is in control, I think we need to ask ourselves if that is the most loving thing we can do in that moment.

Sometimes our friends need us to gently remind them what is true, but other times, they need us to just hold their hand, weep and allow the hurt.

I think when you lose someone or something you love no matter the circumstances, it is hard because you are genuinely afraid of the uncertainty missing something can bring.

And while fear can sometimes indicate we aren’t trusting God fully, it most often indicates that we’re human.

God knows that. He made us human and expects us to be human.

We need to expect that of each other too.

We don’t need to dismiss pain. It’s okay to feel it. It’s okay to let it be real. It doesn’t mean you trust God less.

You are allowed to trust God and be hurt. They are not mutually exclusive feelings. God will still lead with love and reveal why we don’t need to be afraid in His own timing.

God is in control.

If we forget, He will remind us.

What we need to be reminding each other is this:

While we are waiting on God to break the silence, it’s okay to weep.

#RealTalk

I am restless.

I am restless.(I wrote this three years ago when I was studying abroad in Florence, Italy, but I wanted to share it anyway)
One of my friends posted a status on Twitter a while ago that said:
I’m constantly in awe of God’s love for me. It just never stops no matter what.
I favorited that tweet because I’m studying abroad here in Italy, which is a huge blessing and dream come true, and God has been doing some incredible things while I’ve been here.  I’m completely in awe of God every second of every day.  His love, who He is and everything that He does never cease to amaze me.
It’s so true. It doesn’t. God loves us unconditionally, and it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s something I’ve been coming to terms with more and more since I’ve been here. I’ve caught breathtaking glimpses of who God is and just how much He loves us through so many different things. I’ve seen God in the scenery, the people, the way He provides and answers every prayer in a unique and creative way and even in those simple, quiet moments spent with Him. I feel closer to Him than ever because I feel like I am surrounded by God here, and it’s overwhelming in such a good way. I feel like every inch of my heart is saturated and filled with God’s love every day.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot and wondering why exactly God has felt so much closer here. I know He never leaves my side, and He never will. But when I’m at home sometimes, honestly, He can feel a million miles away. In reality, it’s me who is far from Him, but that can be so hard to understand. I think when we’re in a situation where everything is new and unexpected, like traveling all over Europe for the first time, we’re forced to trust God more. And that can be a good thing because we encounter Him in new ways through trusting Him deeper and walking closer with Him. Praying for your adventures too, of course, is always a good thing!
On the long plane ride to Italy, I kept listening to the song Restless by Switchfoot over and over. It kept popping up on my Ipod, and I decided I want the theme of that song to be the theme of this semester. I like the idea behind that song. Because as awesome as it is to grow closer to God through experiences that force you to trust Him, I don’t want to walk closely with God and trust Him deeply only when I feel I have to; whether it’s because I’m out of my comfort zone, or I feel I have nothing else to cling to. 
He didn’t send Jesus after thinking, “Well, if I can’t find anyone else to love, I guess I’ll give these humans a chance.”
He loves us. Only us.
He could have anything besides us. He doesn’t even need us. I mean, He’s God. He has a perfect, beautiful relationship within Himself. All we do is mess everything up all the time. But we mean so much to Him that He still desires us.
And I want Him to mean just as much to me.
I don’t want to want God because I need Him. Of course I need Him. That’s more obvious than I like to admit. I want to want God because I love Him. 
I want to love Him the way He loves me every single day: unconditionally and selflessly and completely. If He can fall in love with a messed up, flawed and imperfect human like me, I can for sure fall in love with a perfect, majestic and beautiful God like Him. Even when I feel like I’m comfortable, loved and provided for, I want to pursue Him the same.  I never want to get comfortable enough in my relationship with Him that I feel like I don’t have to make an effort to seek Him constantly.
 I don’t want to ever feel like I have enough of God.  I always want to long for more and more and more.
When I was first getting to know God in high school, I was seeking Him so earnestly and even desperately, because that’s when I finally, for the first time, recognized this deep longing and need for Him in my life.  I finally realized nothing else was as important. It was powerful and gentle at the same time, and I vividly remember it bringing me straight down to my knees in tearful prayer one New Year’s Eve. And then over and over after that.
I’ve never experienced anything that moved me that way, and I want my entire walk with God to be as honest and passionate as the first time I let Him in.
I always want to be restlessly pursuing Him the way He restlessly pursues each of us.
And I want my love for Him to never stop no matter what.
#RealTalk
 “I run like the ocean to find Your shore
I’m looking for You
Until the sea of glass we meet
At last completed and complete
Where tired and tears and pain subside
Laughter drinks them dry
I’ll be waiting
Anticipating
All that I aim for
What I was made for
With every heartbeat
All of my blood bleeds
Running inside me
Looking for You
I am restless.”
-Switchfoot, Restless

Easter weekend.

bce01-403599_4209002221439_1585668444_nWhen I was at the airport heading home over the weekend, there was a group of college students sitting next to me coming home from their spring break trip to New York.

At first, they were lamenting about our flight being delayed four hours and how we had nothing to do but be stuck at the airport (bummer).

Then, their conversation shifted to how selfish they are for complaining about their situation, when there are so many other situations they could be in that are much, much worse.

Then, it became a deeper conversation about how important it is to stop focusing so much on ourselves – that one of our sole purposes in life is to love others above ourselves. They said that by fulfilling that purpose, we will feel much happier and less empty, because giving love can make you just as whole as receiving it.

I know this sounds like it escalated quickly, but in reality, it was a conversation that took place over the course of four hours while we were stuck at the airport.

Then, they quoted one of my favorite books:

“If we’re not willing to wake up every morning and die to ourselves, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether or not we are really following Jesus.”

As I was listening to their conversation (like a creep), I was thinking two things:

1. I really like these people, and I want to be their friend. Would it be weird if I asked to be their friend?
2. This is a great reminder, especially going into Holy Week. I spend most of my time thinking about myself, how uncomfortable I am, and what I can do to make myself more comfortable. (Sitting at the airport because a delayed flight interrupted my plans is a perfect example of that thought process.) But I always forget that life isn’t a story about me. 
I’m just a tiny part of a much bigger story, and it involves a lot of other people too.

After all, Jesus taught me how to sacrifice everything in order to know and love others, even if I don’t always like them.

By simply putting others above myself, I think I would find that my life is much more fulfilling and meaningful. It made me homesick for my family and friends, who think and live this way and are generally better people than I am, and it also reminded me of this idea that I’m trying to carry with me throughout the rest of the week (and the rest of my life, for that matter).

So, thanks for sharing, strangers at the airport!

#RealTalk

Freedom.

 

“If the Son sets you free, then you will be free indeed.” 

Once for a college dance performance, I had the chance to perform a jazz routine based on this Scripture. It was a cool experience because dancing is one of my favorite ways to worship God and an amazing form of expression. I don’t think anything quite captures the concept of complete joy and freedom like dance.

I read this verse in church many times, but I never took into consideration everything that it means for us. It’s actually a big deal when you sit down (or stand up and dance) to think about it.

Often, I don’t fully comprehend how vast this freedom is that I have in Christ.

It’s not only freedom from the things that hold me back from Him, such as selfishness, anger, confusion and shame, just to name a few.  It’s even more than freedom to think, live and make my own choices and freedom from what others say or do to me.

It’s also freedom from myself, which I think can be a tough concept to grasp.

I read a book where the author compared God to an inventor and us to His inventions. In the book, the author was saying that without some guidance, the inventions don’t know how to work themselves and other people don’t know how to do it either. The only way to know how something works is to ask the inventor, who knows every single thing about the inventions, since he/she designed and created them.

The truth is, I just don’t know what’s good for me. All that I know about myself, I know because of God. After all, He’s the One who created me – I didn’t create me. With that in mind, it makes sense that I know nothing about myself apart from Him. Its only natural that I would look to Him to tell me all about myself, what I’m capable of, how I work and what’s ultimately best for me. Since he designed me, He knows all of those intricate details. In fact, there isn’t a single thing about me that He doesn’t know, because He invented it all.

This gives me the freedom to let go of my own ideas about myself, my constant need to control who I am, the situations I’m in and the choices I make, which may seem like the best thing at the time because it’s what I want, but aren’t necessarily good for me because it’s not what I need. God knows all of that. And He gives us this incredible freedom to just live and accept the fact that we can’t do it on our own, and we don’t have to nor are we expected to. He knows who we’re meant to become and the situations and choices that will get us there, if we just let go, trust God and allow Him to show us.

I think this verse and the freedom Christ gives us are often attributed to the freedom we have to live our lives joyfully and openly.  And that’s definitely part of it.  But I think that’s honestly making this idea way too small. Sometimes, I catch myself trying to see this concept of freedom through a human-sized lens, rather than a God-sized one.

I think the idea of God’s love setting us free is a lot more vast than we could imagine. Because of Him and all He sacrificed, we live in freedom from expectations.  Freedom from doubt.  Worry. Anticipation.  Disappointment. Resentment.  Fear. Freedom from our plans and the way we try to live our lives.  Freedom from imperfection.

This isn’t saying that none of these things will come into our lives, it’s simply saying that they don’t need to control or define us.

This is huge. Because it means not only do we have the freedom to live joyfully and openly and make our own choices, but to live free from the stress that sometimes results because of those choices. We can rest knowing God is our inventor, and He knows how to use us in each situation for our own good and the good of those around us, if we just let Him.

I don’t think this means that we should make choices without even considering how God wants us to live. Just because we can trust Him to have our back, doesn’t mean it should lead us to take advantage of Him. But instead, the unfailing trust we can place in Him should motivate us to focus all of our energy on God in trying to make the right choices. If our hearts are in the right place, even if we mess up, we should never have to worry about a thing.

Grace = Freedom.

My devotional today was centered on the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, describing the story of Jesus’ birth. Reading about His life here on earth, and His death and resurrection, brought to life this incredible freedom in a whole new way.

The fact that our Savior would sacrifice so much to give us a lifetime of freedom that I take for granted is astounding to me. I do it all the time and because of that, I miss so much of who God really is.

The truth is that the Grace He gives to us isn’t anything like we have ever known or will know.

It’s ultimate freedom from everything, and love abounding in everything.

It’s infinite.

Unendingly wide and high and deep and long.

Instead of trying to understand it, just rest in it.

It’s there for us to have – unceasing, unchanging, forever.

#RealTalk


 
 

Dear Beloved,

One of our activities in youth group back in high school was to write a letter to ourselves from God.

We were supposed to think about what God would say to us at that moment in our lives and write as if He were sending us a letter. It was surprisingly more difficult than I could imagine, especially at a point in my life when I had so much going on. I was getting ready to leave for college, trying to plan ahead for my future, attempting to muster what little motivation I had left to finish studying for my final exams and preparing to leave home for the first time – all while feeling the looming weight of this ever-approaching “real world” people were constantly talking about. I still had no clue what I was in for.

The unknown can be a scary place sometimes, but I’ve found it is many times the best place.

Even now that I’m in the “real world,” I wake up most days feeling like there is a lot of unknown still to discover. I have to admit I would find this task of writing a letter from God to myself just as difficult now.  I’m totally incapable of thinking of myself the way God does without making a conscious effort, and I’m reminded of that every day.

I remember putting it off for several days, and then one day as I was reading a devotional, everything that needed to be said (or written) suddenly flooded into my mind. I couldn’t write fast enough.

After I was finished, I could barely remember what I had actually written. I was so caught up in it that I wasn’t even thinking about it anymore. Two hours had passed in what felt like five minutes.

I vividly remember reading the letter back after I finished writing it and tears filling my eyes, because it was exactly what I needed to hear. I truly believe with every facet of my being those words were not my own, but they came from God to me at a moment in my life when I needed them most.

Occasionally, when I need to be reminded of who I am and how God thinks of me, I reread the letter.

I don’t know where you are on your journey with God, but I pray that maybe these words give you the same hope, joy and peace they did for me in a season of waiting for so much uncertainty to unfold – a season of life that I don’t think ever really ends.

Here is what God had to say to me then, and continues to remind me every day that I forget:

Weary and broken down from the weight of life, from attempting to please so many and managing to please so few, from hiding behind who I pretend to be, from pretending to have it all figured out – to have it all together – but so frequently feeling the familiar sting of failure, defeat, disappointment. Frustrated and angry and upset with myself. Feeling worthless.  Feeling invisible.

Broken, empty and helpless, I fall to my knees. Surrendering my pride, I finally give in.  There’s nowhere left for me to go. I’m tired of hiding behind lies. I just want truth –  something to cling to.
Doubting myself, feeling let down and terrified to know the answer, I cautiously ask:
“God, what do You think of me?”
Filled with compassion, His eyes fill with tears.
“I can’t believe that you’re asking Me this. It breaks My heart to think that you don’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt what I think of you.
My beautiful child, you know what I think of you.
You are My precious daughter.
You are unique; there is no one else in the world like you. You are priceless; worth more to Me than anything on this earth.
Look at the mountains that stretch miles and miles into the sky, majestically dressed with crystal snow.
I love you more than those mountains.
Look out over the desert that engulfs you in its vastness, leaving you feeling so small. I love you more than each grain of sand.
Stare in awe at the power and strength of the ocean as the tide rushes in, surrounding you with its beauty. I designed each wave. I gave the ocean its force. But I treasure you so much more.
Look at the waterfalls, the valleys, the fields. Watch the wild horses run; the bald eagles soar. Examine the intricate design of each flower, each snowflake, each butterfly’s wings.
Stand immersed in a breathtaking sunset.
 Observe how I have sculpted the world and painted the skies, and know that you are more beautiful.
I delight in you, and I love you with all that I am. If that weren’t true, I wouldn’t have sent My Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for you so I could know you. I wouldn’t have relentlessly pursued you. I would have let you die in your sin. But I couldn’t. I will never be willing to let go of you, because I desire and cherish you and want you alive. Alive in Me.
You want to know how much I love you?  I don’t need you, but I still desperately want you.  That’s how much I love you.
So don’t ask silly questions that in your heart you know the answer to. Instead, believe in your heart that the answer is, in fact, the absolute truth.
Next time you find yourself asking the question: What does God think of me? Know that no matter what this world has to offer, He loves you more.
#RealTalk
 

Meet Abigail.

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Over spring break, I went on a mission trip with a campus ministry that I am involved with. It is a Wednesday night, non-denominational faith-based ministry for college students on our campus, and it is part of a bigger ministry involving lots of other college campuses across the nation. Our ministry went to Clearwater, Florida, for the week to work with a local church there.

While we were in Florida, we were leading a high school/middle school youth group for the week, as well as visiting the beach, doing some shopping, seeing dolphins (my favorite animal) and enjoying each other’s company, guitars in hand (guitars are constantly in hand – one of the things that I love about this group of crazy people.)

Leading up to this point, the trip had been relaxing, fun and relatively easy. We were teaching high school and middle school kids all about how to live their lives centered on Christ, making music, investing in a wonderful church with wonderful people inside and even attending sunrise services on the beach. I was comfortable and even felt kind of like I was on vacation. God created rest. He knows that we need it and wants us to enjoy time to rest and relax. For this trip, however, God had some other things up His sleeve too. He’s always up to something.

On Tuesday night, our leaders announced they wanted to stray from the original plan for the week and visit a prison instead. They knew a woman who ministers in this prison and hadn’t spoken to her in years. She called them out of the blue when she found out that we were in Florida and asked if we had any time to come work with her ministry. It was one of those serendipitous things you can’t ignore.

I’ve never been to a prison, and I was nervous because I didn’t know quite what to expect. Our purpose in being there was to work with a classroom of juvenile prisoners, talk with them, share stories, get to know each other, and hopefully, show them the love they need and deserve.

I’ve never been in prison myself, but I can imagine it would be kind of a lonely place at times. To me, loneliness is one of the worst things your heart can experience. I’ve always believed human beings were designed for relationships, and that is the desire at the center of all of our hearts: to know and love, and to be loved and known.

That is the basic premise of why we were there – to hopefully show these girls who are in a dark, lonely point in their lives that they aren’t alone or forgotten and that people know them, love them and believe in them. Hopefully through that, they would be able to find the hope they need to believe their lives can get better, and they’re not owned by the choices and mistakes they’ve made in the past.

That all sounds great, right? But as we were standing in line going through security, I still felt a bit of uneasiness, and all of these doubts kept creeping into my mind:

What if they’re mean? What if they hate us? What if they hurt us? What if we can’t help them? What if this was a big mistake? What if we’re not supposed to be here? What if it’s too hard? What if I can’t do this?

Right before we walked through the doors to the classroom, I remember saying a quick prayer to God, “What am I doing here? I’m scared, and I don’t think I can do this.”

Which is a pretty normal thought to have right before walking into a prison for the first time, I would say.

In that moment, He quietly reminded me, “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think you could do it.”

That’s a simple truth that brought me all of the peace that I needed.

It seems like God always has a better plan and knows exactly what He’s doing at exactly the right time. I’ve always believed we are right where we are in every single moment of our lives for a reason, even if that reason doesn’t seem clear at the time.

I think that one sentence applies universally any time we are questioning our capacity to handle a given situation: You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t do it.

If that’s not comforting, I don’t know what is. It just eliminates all doubt.

After we entered the classroom, I was so surprised to find that we were greeted by bright, smiling faces and so much joy! These were completely normal girls, just like you and just like me. Nothing about them seemed threatening or unusual at all – they had just been through some difficult times which led them here.

After we spoke to them as a whole, played some music and hung out for a while, we began to talk with them one-on-one. I ended up sitting down with this girl named Abigail.

Abigail stood out to me as soon as we walked in, because she actually reminded me a lot of myself in high school. She was sitting quietly in the corner, twirling her hair and she was so tiny! I didn’t feel comfortable asking her to share her life story with me right away, so after we met, I just said I wanted to get to know her.

I asked her a few simple questions about herself and let her do the talking. I was surprised by how open she was. She spoke like somebody who had been through so much and had a lot of time to sort through her past. She seemed ready to move on from those things and talked about them like they were a distant part of her life now, which was inspiring to me. She was somebody who seemed to understand the importance of letting go, and she was so close to doing just that.

She explained to me that she was raised in a private, Christian school, but had strayed far away from the faith she once firmly believed in. A big part of that was the fact that her home life was messed up. Her dad was sexually and physically abusive, and she and her sister were in the emergency room many times because they were so badly beaten.

It was difficult to listen to her detailed stories of she and her dad’s dysfunctional relationship, but she seemed to almost want to talk about it, so I listened. Later, she described to me that she ran away from home and became involved with drugs as a way to forget her painful past.

This girl had been in more desperate situations than most people face in their entire lives.

She was homeless for a while, then she lived in a couple of drug houses. She was committing crimes in order to fuel her addiction and was arrested and in this prison just a year later. All of this happened between the time she turned 12 and 13 years old. Intense, right?

You would think this sounds like the ultimate low point, but it was actually the beginning of a big change for her.

She told me the night after she was arrested, the drug house where she had been living was burned to the ground and everyone was killed. As difficult as it was to be arrested and taken to prison the day before, it was a big wake up call that otherwise, she could have died the very next day.

She still struggles with her addictions and periods of relapse, but she is trying so hard. She told me she and her mom used to surf all the time when she was younger, and her eyes lit up explaining those memories. She said that was a major motivation for her to turn her life around – just to see her mom again. She’s 17 years old now and has been in prison for four years.

After conversing about all of this for about an hour, she told me something I didn’t expect at all. Seemingly out of nowhere, she said, “I really miss God. I used to always spend time with Him, and even if my life was chaotic, everything just made so much more sense when I felt close to Him – like He always had a plan and that was something I used to cling to. I’ve gotten so far away from my faith, and I feel distant from Him now. I don’t know what to do. I just feel really lost.”

I asked her what she knew about God, and she said not much. We talked about the Gospel, and I made sure to emphasize how much God loves her, no matter where she is in her life or what she’s been through.

I wanted to make it clear to her that she wasn’t a project. I wasn’t this Christian coming into her life, only to make changes and force my beliefs down her throat because I feel that’s my job.  I have always believed that our first and foremost duty is to love. Plain and simple. To love the way Christ loved us: unconditionally and with no agenda.

I think if we just love people not because we think we should, but because we genuinely do, the result can be mind-blowing.

We talked about how priceless and irreplaceable she is to God.

One of my favorite verses is from Hebrews 12: “For the joy set before Him, He endured the Cross.”

Earlier, we asked the girls what they thought “the joy set before Him” was. Most of them answered that it was the thought of going to heaven or being with God.

But the truth is, that joy is them.

And you and I.

And all of us.

He endured the Cross because His immeasurable love for us is greater than any of the pain.

I asked what she thought about that, and she told me she felt like God couldn’t love her or accept her because of all of the mistakes she’s made and because of her past.

A statement like that shouldn’t awaken any kind of excitement, because it’s kind of a heavy statement. But I have to admit, at this point, I was excited. I won’t even pretend to have all of the answers to every question you could ask me.  I would just be kidding myself, because I absolutely don’t. But this was something I definitely knew the answer to.  Not because it’s what I’ve heard from others, but because it’s what I’ve experienced many times myself.

The most important thing about what Abigail said is that it’s an enormous lie. It’s such a toxic way of thinking about ourselves and especially about God, because it undermines all of His capabilities.

The truth that is constantly lost behind this lie is that we don’t serve a God of human nature. We have a God so much greater than all of humanity, who is consistently capable of extending to us something way better than we give ourselves: infinite Grace.

After we talked for a while, I asked if she would like to pray, and she said yes. So we held hands and prayed together, asking God for forgiveness and asking Him to make us new.

Right there, Abigail made the best decision of her life.

After we finished praying, I asked her how she felt. She said she felt a lot calmer, like a weight had been lifted. As she was talking, it was obvious that she didn’t just feel a change, but you could see it. Honestly, I’ve never seen that much hope in someone’s eyes.

She said, “I know that because God is with me, there’s nothing stopping me from getting out of here soon.”

And I felt like she was talking about a lot more than the physical prison she was currently in.

As we were getting ready to leave, we said goodbye and she told me she would be praying for us. As soon as she said that, I realized that we went into that prison to challenge and encourage these girls, but Abigail ended up challenging and encouraging me even more.

Mostly because she reminded me of something that is so amazing about God’s love: it’s unconditional.

It’s not dependent on circumstances, or anything, for that matter.

God can reach you anywhere.

You don’t have to be in a peaceful church sanctuary kneeling at the alter to surrender your heart.

Even if you’re in the middle of a chaotic, dirty, lonely prison full of anger, hatred and darkness, whether literally or figuratively…

He’ll meet you there.

#RealTalk