Speak Grace

With Thanksgiving only days away, I am thinking about gratitude, grace, and the state of my heart.

Many of us were taught to ‘say grace’ at the dinner table. Something like:

Thank you, God, for the world so sweet
Thank you, God, for the food we eat
Thank you, God, for the birds that sing
Thank you, God, for everything!
Amen

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

Still, it breaks my heart every time I realize that so many of us have not learned to speak grace to those who need it: all of us.

At about the same age we learn to say grace before dinner, we also learn to judge. Who is in and who is out? Who is a friend and who is not? Who can I trust, and from whom should I run? Obviously, we need to make sound judgments. We shouldn’t trust the wrong people. Stranger Danger is all too real.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

As we get older, our judgments become more sophisticated—and hurtful. We all recognize the popular kids, the mean kids, and the outcast kids in the middle school lunch room. Sadly, it doesn’t stop at middle school. We decide who is like us, who we like, and we love them—because they deserve it. Others deserve sympathy, compassion, pity, or even contempt. Of course, we don’t like to think of it this way, but it’s true.

James warns: “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (1:19). Similarly, Jesus exhorts: “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged…why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (Matt 7:1, 3).

Unfortunately, we aren’t quick to listen—we are quick to judge! We decide in advance that what that person did was wrong, not up to our standards, was something we would never do…so we don’t listen to their story, we don’t hear their heart.

With anger bubbling around our heart and head, blocking our ears, we speak out of hurt or disdain, and never get around to listening. Often we speak the judgmental words only to ourselves, or worse, in gossip; we don’t take them to the source of our frustration, because that would require a vulnerable conversation, which might be uncomfortable for both of us and necessarily involve listening. We cut people out rather than allow them to be human, to make mistakes. We cut people out rather than get real, with them and with ourselves.

Gracious speech can be an antidote to judgment. Paul encourages: “Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone” (Col. 4:6). To speak graciously isn’t just good etiquette. It flows from believing in our God of grace, believing that He loves us no matter what, believing that there is nothing we can do—for good or ill—that will ever change His love for us. When you know you are loved, love will flow through you. When you know you have received grace, you are able to share it.

Notice, I wrote “we” all through this post, because of course I am guilty. I can be quick to judge. I need to be quick to listen to the loving whispers of God, and quick to listen to your stories. I need to speak grace to you, and not just say grace before dinner.

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The Struggle is Real

This summer our church has been doing a deep dive into the wisdom of Proverbs. Earlier this week some of us gathered to study this passage from Proverbs 30:

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

When I entered the room, I thought our topic was contentment, or integrity. The more we dialed down, the more uncomfortable I became.

I have a love-hate relationship with money. Mostly hate. I don’t want to be rich. I don’t want a huge house or fancy cars. I just want enough. I want to not want.

I enjoyed a comfortable childhood. We had enough and then some. We had a swimming pool. We attended sleep-away summer camps. We could travel (my dad was a captain with Pan Am). My parents paid for my private college education.

My children don’t experience similar luxury and yet our needs are more than met. We have a comfortable home in a beautiful neighborhood near friends we love. Every time I flip through our photo albums, I feel overwhelming gratitude for God’s good provisions.

Still, money above all is the bugaboo that wakes me in the night, the hardest area of life for me to trust God.

So here’s the story:

The week Teen turned nine years old, our church held its first Mission Market, an opportunity to purchase for your loved ones non-traditional Christmas gifts (for example, socks and underwear for orphans) that benefit our mission partners. Teen wandered in on his own and found a picture of a boy his age who needed support to attend school in the Dominican Republic. Something about this boy’s face stirred Teen’s heart. They both played soccer. He said, “I found my brother.”

At the time, I couldn’t afford to buy a drugstore lipstick. But how could we deny our son a chance to learn the value of giving? He offered to take on extra chores to ‘earn’ the monthly cost of supporting this boy he’d never met. We haven’t missed a month’s support in nine years.

Six years ago we were asked to participate in a Thanksgiving trip to the DR where we could meet this boy. I thought money would be the deal breaker but, through the generosity of others, all four of us participated in a trip that forever changed our family.

This week Guy is leading a group of 20 (mostly teens) on another trip to the DR. I asked him if he’d considered inviting Teen. Both he and ‘his brother’ have now graduated high school; Teen is off to college while his brother has gone to work to support his family. This might be their last opportunity to connect. Guy responded that we didn’t have the money: end of conversation.

Of course we don’t have the money. We will soon take on a lose-my-mind loan to cover out-of-state college tuition. But something in me couldn’t let go of the idea that our kiddo needed to go on this trip. I brought it up again: “Money makes me bananas, so I shouldn’t be the one pushing this, except I can’t not… If we’re already trusting God for this massive college loan, how can we not trust God for the funds for this potentially life-changing experience?”

We asked, and Teen jumped: YES he wanted to go! Some of his best friends are on the trip. He wants to see his brother. And he wants to meet the little guy our family will support now that Teen’s brother has graduated.

We wrote a letter, inviting people to support Teen in prayer and finances. The money came in, in some cases from people we didn’t expect. And before that, in fact, the very week we made the decision in faith to register Teen for the trip, he received a small college scholarship—which felt exactly like confirmation from God that we had listened well.

Who is the Lord? The God who provides.
Lord, help me to trust…

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Receive Correction

When I reflect on my lifetime in God’s house, I have to acknowledge God’s grace that I’m still here. Especially in my own tween/teen years, well-intended church-going do-gooders decided it was their Christian duty to beat me over the head with (often misinterpreted) Scripture. Though they aimed to “speak truth in love” (another Scripture taken out of context), they didn’t love but judged. For whatever reason they plucked from the air that week, they insisted I didn’t measure up and had to conform. They were wise (in their own eyes) and I had reason to “fear the Lord,” they said.

Fear them, is more accurate.

Of course there are appropriate occasions for discipline. Parent to child. Spouse to spouse. Teacher to child. Mentor to mentee. Dear friends, one to another. In large part, the right to speak discipline to another is an earned privilege.

The problem comes when we set ourselves to tweeze the splinter from another’s eye—without permission, usually—when we haven’t first spent sufficient time humbly on our knees, letting God surgically remove the log from our eyes. Rather than offering relief, in blindness we risk inflicting more blindness.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life. We in the Church bear witness to the True Word of God Incarnate through the Truth in God’s written Word. But rather than pointing to Truth’s freedom and the sacrificial love of our Savior, we too casually wield our interpretation of truth as a weapon. We all need way more grace.

Notice I lump myself in, “we” and not merely “they.” Hurt people hurt people. I confess I’ve done it, too: been too free with judgmental words. Lord, have mercy on us all.

Sin clouds every human being and every organization, the Church necessarily included. We pray for better among God’s people but—maybe because we claim to have access to the Truth?—the Church is regularly a repeat offender. Sadly, I completely understand why so many, including people I love dearly, want nothing to do with it.

Yet, God calls us to community, to corporate worship, to life together, and so I remain committed to His beloved, broken institution. And though I strive to remain open and soft-hearted, I hold my scarred heart gingerly when it comes to receiving correction. Of course I want to grow in wisdom. I’m just careful about who claims to be offering wisdom.

God, though… He’s not safe but He is good, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis. His Word, regularly studied and prayed, in truth offers Truth. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Spirit of God, speaking to our hearts through the inspired Word of God, tells us what we need to know (teaching), stop (rebuking), change (correcting), and do (training in righteousness) so that we’re ready for all the good things God has planned for us.

His correction gives life. He keeps me on course, directing me on right paths. He created me and knows the intricate details He built into my wiring, and so only He truly knows how to steer me in the right direction.

You be you, says the world, but God only knows how I can be my best me. God’s love and continual restoration of this life He gave me makes spending time with Him in His life-giving Word so worth the discipline of invested time.

Deep & Wise: Uncommon Sense from the Proverbs
Week 2 – Receive Correction

Connect
Reflect on an important lesson you’ve learned recently.

Study
Read aloud Proverbs 12:1.
How would you explain the connection between discipline, knowledge, and correction?Read aloud Proverbs 3:5-8, 11-12.
According to these verses, what does it look like to trust the Lord? How is that related to correction?
Why should someone trust the Lord?
Read aloud Proverbs 15:31-33.
How does correction give life?
What does it mean to “fear the Lord”?

Live
Generally, do you tend to despise or heed correction? What makes the difference in your response?
How does the Lord offer His discipline/correction? How can you receive it?
What role does trust play in receiving correction?
How can receiving the Lord’s correction increase your trust in Him?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that you will be open to receiving the Lord’s correction.

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Pursue Wisdom

I just came from a Boy Scout Eagle Court of Honor in which ten boys received Scouting’s highest honor, the rank of Eagle Scout.

Teen became an Eagle last year, so I recognize how much hard work each has invested to bring them to this day. As a mom, I understand what this day signifies in their lives and for their families. Tween is troop bugler, a few years (and still a lot of work) away from his own Eagle court.

Several Eagles spoke about how much of the work of Scouting just isn’t fun. Who wants to spend weekends–or worse, summer days–doing badge work, which feels an awful lot like homework? Most teen boys would rather spend early Saturday mornings sleeping in than getting up early to go on a long hike or an overnight camp out. And every Eagle project, typically a 100-hour commitment, involves difficult logistical and leadership challenges.

My kids have said those very things…

And yet, each Eagle who spoke to the hard work and boredom and occasional desire to quit also said how glad they are that they stuck with it. That choosing to persevere in Scouting taught them lessons they would have missed otherwise. That investing in this area of life necessarily prepared them to meet other challenges.

Teen said that very same thing. He would not be the young man he is today without the Scouting experience.

These boys chose wisdom over folly. They prioritized what they needed in life over what they wanted in the moment.

“Need vs. Want” has been one of our family values, and I am grateful for the layers of life experience that have reinforced that for our kids. With much sadness, our sons learned that if homework wasn’t done, they couldn’t play with friends. They learned that if they didn’t get badges signed off in time, they’d have to wait half a year to receive their badge at the next court. And they’ve been taught lessons from the Bible, which clearly presents the benefits of seeking God’s values over instant gratification.

The Scout Oath says, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law…” Of course we want our kids to do their best. And we’re so grateful that they do their best in God’s grace. That for all the times they fail–and they have, and will, as we all do–God will pick them up and put them back on the right path.

Deep & Wise: Uncommon Sense from the Proverbs
Week 1 – Pursue Wisdom, Proverbs 9

Connect
Who can you describe as ‘wise,’ and why?

Study
Read aloud Proverbs 9 three times (if you’re doing this study with a group, invite people to read different paragraphs each time through).
Compare and contrast Wisdom (vv. 1-6) with Folly (vv. 13-18). How is each described? Where are they? To whom do they speak, and what do they say? What has Wisdom done that Folly has not?
How might vv. 7-9 connect to the invitations of Wisdom and Folly?
What does it mean to “fear the Lord” and how does that increase wisdom (v. 10)?
What are the benefits of wisdom? The perils of folly?

Live
How do you see Wisdom and Folly calling out in daily life?
Many would prefer a ‘Buddy God’ over one who expects ‘fear.’ What does “fear of the Lord” look like in daily life?
How do you practically tune your ear to hear Wisdom and ignore Folly?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that the Spirit will grow you in wisdom.

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Christ Has Risen

He has risen indeed!

The other day we drove past a local church with a banner that read:

Easter is for Everyone!
(No religious experience necessary)

We chuckled, paused, reflected… It’s accurate, but does it feel like an odd thing to say? I’m still thinking about it, so at least that makes it effective advertising…

Easter is for everyone. John 3:16 affirms that God loves the whole world so much that He sent His one and only Son to live and die and rise from the dead to bring us back into right relationship with our Creator. Jesus didn’t sacrifice Himself only for those with religious experience, but for the whole world.

Jesus came to redeem our lives from sin and death. To restore our relationship with the God who loves us. To give our lives meaning and purpose. To reconcile us with one another and with this great big beautiful Planet Earth.

Even those of us with religious experience forget the vast significance of what Jesus did for us. We need regular reminders.

Today Tween and I will teach the 4-year-olds that God sent Jesus to be our forever friend. Because John 3:16. Yesterday I saw our co-teacher and admitted that I hadn’t read the lesson yet. But really, what we want these precious littles to know is that God is good and that God loves them. This sweet man exclaimed, “That’s what I need to know, too!”

Yes. God is good. God loves us. Love God, and love one another. It’s that simple.

But not easy. Even the disciples struggled. Jesus died and He rose. They saw Him in His resurrected body, and they still didn’t know what to do next. So they went back to what they knew. The former fishermen went fishing.

They failed at this thing they’d been doing all their lives. Enter Jesus. Jesus redeemed their failed experience beyond imagination. He restored their discouraged hearts. He reclaimed their vision for what He wanted to do in and through them. Jesus loved them fully and graciously. No judgment, no condemnation, only love and direction for the future.

Thank you, Jesus!

Resurrection Sunday 2017
John 21:1-17

Connect
In which ‘regular’ activities do you engage to distract yourself from discouragement?

Study
Read aloud John 21:1-14.
How did “the disciple whom Jesus loved” recognize Jesus (vv. 4-7)?
Imagine you are Peter. Why did you get dressed and jump in the water (v. 7)?
Why do you think Jesus helped the disciples catch fish (v. 6) and asked for some of the fish they caught (v. 10) when He already had fish (v. 9)? What might that tell us about Jesus? About us?
How do you understand the disciples’ reaction to Jesus in v. 12?
Read aloud John 21:15-17.
Why does Jesus connect loving Him with feeding and caring for His sheep?

Live
How do you recognize Jesus when He shows up in your life?
Where in your life do you need Jesus to show up with His miraculous power?
Jesus helped discouraged fisherman haul in a noteworthy catch, and He also called Peter back to his true calling as a disciple. How might Jesus want to redeem and transform your life?
Do you truly love Jesus? How do you show it?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray for God to do more than you can ask or imagine in and through your life.

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ReBuild: Mexico 2017

One of the best things our church does fills one week with life-changing experience and takes the rest of the year to plan, then debrief, before planning the next trip: our spring break house building trip to Mexico with Amor Ministries. This year, as in most years, about 250 high school students and adults built hope, twelve new homes, and a classroom for a church in the community. In one week.

In addition to thirteen build teams the trip includes a tool team, a camp crew, a medical team, a camp therapist, and a media team. Layered throughout are the Catalyst student leaders, all seniors, who lead the build teams, and the adult coaches who play a supporting role to their Catalysts. It takes a lot of people putting in a lot of work to pull it all together, and that’s not stating it strongly enough.

Each trip has a theme, and this year’s theme was ReBuild. Guy chose the theme at the end of 2016 and, when he told me, I had to laugh: without consulting one another, he chose a “re” theme for this trip into which he invests so much love, energy, and leadership, while I chose a “re” theme (re:create) as my word of the year, the word that has and will motivate me to new investments of love, energy, and leadership.

The group returned last night, and today in worship we celebrated what God has done. In Mexico, through the buildings, the memories that will last a lifetime, and the hope for a new and better future as people have a safe, dry place to nurture their families. In participants, as so many spoke of new or renewed faith commitments, fresh insights into themselves and their place in the world, and deeper relationships across all the ‘usual’ social boundaries–adults and teens, kids in different grades and from different schools.

We also celebrate what God will do. In families, as this year more than ever I was struck by how many families or family groups participated together–siblings, parent-child, married couples, and whole families; and in families where some or most did not go on the trip, they, too, will be affected by the overflow of experience from those who did. In schools and workplaces, in our church and community, as participants continue to live out their experience over weeks and months and years to come, and as God’s love shines brightly, bringing glory to His name.

As story after story was shared, participants built for the listening congregation a vision of God at work through this week in Mexico. I’m no contractor, but clearly God is our foundation. He created us. He knew our names, He had good plans for us, all before we were yet born. This year, for perhaps the first time in the 27 years of this trip, all teams had solid concrete foundations poured by the end of the first build day. I hope they remember: a strong foundation is essential to a strong structure, and God is our firm foundation.

One after another spoke about the strength of relationships developed in such a short time. And as I reflected on the theme, ReBuild, it occurred to me that we have the power to build supporting walls in each other’s lives. Someone said, “As the walls of the houses went up, the walls in our hearts and lives came down.” That’s true: we build metaphorical walls to protect ourselves from judgment, from criticism, from rejection. And it’s also true that when we find safe people, we can dismantle our walls of protection even as we together build stronger walls of community and encouragement.

Life can be hard, and people can be mean. Too often we throw verbal stones or, for whatever reason (sometimes for no reason, at least no good reason), we tear each other down. No surprise we wall off our hearts! But encouragement and community, they rebuild us and make us stronger.

One young man said he had been seeking community for years. Something clicked this week and he found it, evidenced by a friend’s embrace as he returned to his seat. My Teen has been fortunate to know that community. A twice-monthly before-school boys’ Bible study started with a group of motivated 8th grade guys and has continued through their senior year. They were adult-led until they took up their own leadership, and they have carried it forward in ways that pleasantly surprised their parents and other adult leaders.

Teen got to be a Catalyst this year (achieving one more life goal!), as did many of the Bible study boys. Along with their female peers, they have forged a tight-knit group; their community had a “ripple effect” throughout camp, fostering community with each gentle wave. Teen stood up to thank his fellow Catalysts, and to thank his team. He said, “We became a family. By the end of the week our team was a family building a home for another family.”

I watched with awe as my son–surrounded by community–stood, arms raised, singing:

I’ll stand
With arms high and heart abandoned
In awe of the one who gave it all
I’ll stand
My soul Lord to you surrendered
All I am is yours

Safe to say they are returning home having been rebuilt by God and His gift of community.

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Known

Talking with friends last week I mentioned that I’ve taken just about every personality test out there, including the silly ones on Facebook. “Ooh, which Disney princess are you? [beat as Friend examines my face] Never mind, you’re Belle. Definitely Belle.”

Spot on.

I have seen Beauty and the Beast twice this month, three times if you include Crosswalk: The Musical (even if you don’t watch all of it, watch some. It’s silly and hilarious!). Our amazing high school put on the stage play, and yesterday our family saw the live action movie.

I may be prettier than James Corden, though not as breathtaking as Emma Watson, but Belle is my Disney princess doppelganger. Like Belle, I am bookish and odd, with my head in the clouds. Belle is outcast for her unusual priorities. The Beast is feared for his appearance. While Gaston, the handsome doofus, receives the admiration of everyone–women want to be with him, men want to be him–even though he may be the scariest character of all.

One line in the movie version caught my heart: the curse caused everyone who loved someone in the castle to forget they existed. Beyond the castle walls, they were no longer known. So sad!

Every human being wants to know and be known. It sounds simple enough. Yet too often we allow our own priorities and our judgments to obstruct how we perceive others. We get in our own way and miss the beauty and love of others who are not like us.

Yesterday I received a message from a friend I’ve known most of my life. I haven’t seen him in person in years, but we’ve kept up through online conversations that sometimes last days and go surprisingly deep (less surprising if you know either of us personally). He had been reflecting on something flippant he’d said about our friendship, something that reverberated. Which compelled him to share it with me.

He didn’t have to share, but he did. Others might have felt too vulnerable. He wrote about me, and the (in his opinion, uncommon) love and gentleness I’ve shared with him. That I am unlike others has been my strength and has had an unlikely effect on him. Though we disagree on core beliefs, my sincere hope and willingness to love him no matter what has allowed him to feel safe to meet me on common ground. He sees in me strength I don’t always feel, and he believes in me.

Reading his words, I felt seen, known. He knows me essentially in a way others with whom I regularly interact don’t. Despite the rejection I sometimes experience, his confidence inspires me to feel newly confident.

This might surprise the crud out of him, but I think God sent my friend at just the right time with just the encouragement I needed to know that God, too, sees me, knows me, and loves me. I don’t have to be afraid. I am not alone.

If I can leave you with a thought: take time to truly see people and acknowledge the best of who they are. Encouragement is a gift you won’t regret.

Jesus: Our Shepherd
Week 4 – Known: John 10

Connect
What sets apart someone you would follow from others you wouldn’t?

Study
Read aloud John 10:1-15.
Describe the difference between the shepherd, thieves and robbers and the hired hand.
What does the shepherd do for the sheep?
Why do the sheep follow the shepherd and not a stranger?
How is the shepherd good?
Retell this scene in a contemporary setting: who would be the shepherd, thief and sheep?Read aloud John 10:28-30.
What does Jesus promise, and how can that be comforting?

Live
How do you get to know the Shepherd?
How do you keep focused on the Shepherd’s voice when there are multiple voices calling for your attention?
Who are the “thieves and robbers” or “wolves” threatening the sheep today?
What can you do differently this week to tune your ear to your Shepherd’s voice?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that you will continually listen for your Shepherd’s voice.

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