How Nelson Mandela Became My Bethlehem Star

Nelson-Mandela

I walked to the edge of my faith tonight, looked down and was tempted to jump.

Because sometimes there are no stars or moon, just an ink black sky and, when you step outside in your sneakers and run the country mile, you can’t even see the white of your shoes. It’s that dark.

“I’m done!” I yelled at God while I ran, because I was.

Nothing was working. No amount of being faithful to Jesus was seeming to work, and people I loved weren’t getting better and some were dying and others were starving themselves or relationships were failing. No matter how much I prayed, mountains were not moving and I was done.

I ran and thought about Mum when she had brain cancer, how we’d done everything we could to heal her, how we’d anointed her with oil and prayed against generational curses and renounced sins and sung hymns and done the medical stuff too and her tumor was still growing and the sky was just as dark then as it was now.

I was done with being a Christian.

I was done with believing in something I couldn’t see because it was lonely in the dark. I needed someone’s hand to reach out and hold me because sometimes, faith is touching Jesus’ nail-pierced hands and you can call me Thomas if you want to.

After a while I was panting, but not from the run, from all of the pain, the world’s pain and I couldn’t do it. I kept saying this and I stopped, doubled over, and God showed me, then.

He showed me a picture of the late Nelson Mandela, sitting alone in his bare-bones cell in Africa for twenty-seven years (or nine thousand, eight hundred and fifty five days) and how he emerged—his mind and soul intact, even though he’d forgotten how to tie his shoes—and continued to lead, to inspire, to shine.

To be, as Lisa-Jo Baker put it, a home for those who had none.

He showed me a picture of a woman in Haiti who was a housekeeper at a hotel where my friend had stayed, and all of this woman’s money from housekeeping went towards re-building her house, because there are no banks there—people just transfer the money directly into things like bricks for the walls of their home, or food to eat.

And this woman, she was sitting in her half-built house, the walls just piles of bricks around her, and she was sitting there reading her Bible.
God showed me my neighbor, a single lady who, every night when she gets home from work, plays hymns from her piano by the open window.

He showed me my mum, who never stopped believing God was healing her —

Even when the tumor got bigger and now, after eight years of brain cancer she is fully healed, the tumor gone and doctors scratching their heads. And he showed me this video through a friend, the video of a homeless man joining a Christian musician’s music video, the video of a person with no home giving heartfelt praise to his heavenly father.

And each of these pictures—of Mandela emerging from prison, of the woman in her unfinished house, reading her Bible, of my mum, my neighbor, my husband and the homeless man—they all were flames lighting up the sky, comprising the brightest star—a Bethlehem star.

A star which led the wise men —

which leads all men and women, sons and daughters, into the presence of a king born on a very dark night, born in a manger, in a stable smelling of horse and cow, born in a lowly and despicable way so that we would know the kind of hope that combusts across the sky like a choir of angels.

The hope which leads us home.

Photo Credit: robin_24 , Creative Commons

In Want of More Blessings

blessing

My husband, The Farmer, is testing the waters today. Are the beans ready? Will they process through the combine without problems? Or should he wait a few more days?

Harvest has begun, and with it, a hopefulness is in the air.

What will the crops yield?  Will the corn be dry enough?  Will the beans be a “bumper” this year?

Throughout the summer, I have heard, “the corn is doing well” and “the beans are suffering”.  My Farmer talks about his fields like they are dear friends.  He has planted, watered, nurtured, and prayed.

But now that harvest is here, what blessings lie around the corner?

Blessings.  That word has been rattling around in my brain for weeks, months even. And it has come up in countless books, devotions, lessons and videos.  I even made a “blessing jar” at the beginning of the year. I prepared pretty little cards to record any new blessings. The cards are dropped into my jar, with hopes of filling it up throughout the year.  I look for blessings every day.

Don’t you? I want to be blessed.

Once when I was talking on the phone with a friend, we were just chit-chatting about small things. I began to complain about my mountain of laundry and the dirty floors. I grumbled about having to sweep and mop… again. My sweet friend replied, ‘Oh, I wish I could sweep your floors for you’.

Immediately, I was humbled and ashamed.

You see, when she was just a young mother, she had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. And her disease was severe. Most days, she was in bed, not able to do the laundry or cook meals for her family. These everyday chores I dreaded, she counted as blessings. Even my mundane tasks are evidence of God’s favor.

I wash the dishes because God has given us food.

I do SO much laundry because we have an abundance of clothes.

I sweep the floor because I have the health and strength to do so.

I make the beds because I have a home, a beautiful shelter, more than I need.

Do I need to be blessed?  Am I in want of yet more blessings?  I am blessed.  I am completely, totally, abundantly blessed.

Even when we pray, almost every prayer—from everyone—begins with “God, please bless us”.  There are well over 350 verses in the Bible with some form of the word bless, and most of them have to do with God blessing us! In Genesis, the beginning, there are 65; there about 80 in Psalms and Proverbs combined; ending with an amazing half dozen in Revelations.

Our Bible is completely laced with God’s blessings on his people.

We are blessed, exceedingly blessed.

In Matthew, those counted as blessed are the poor, the mourners, the gentle, those who are thirsting for God as well as those who are pure in God, the merciful, those who keep the peace and those who are persecuted. I’m on that list. How about you?  And I have not even touched on the truth that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens!!

We are blessed. We are blessed. We are blessed.

I have gotten way too comfortable with my blessings.  They have become my normal; my expectations. I am living in a paradise compared to 90% of the population.  I am enjoying the blessings, but often not remembering The Blesser.  I am blessed because God has chosen to bestow favor.  He has already given me much — over and over again.   I could spend the rest of today and tomorrow filling out cards for my blessing jar. It should be overflowing with cards.

I should need another jar, and then another.

‘Let us bless you, God’ should be our prayer. “Now unto him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think…to him be the glory”.

Yes, glory to God, the Giver of my abundance.

My phone chirps, and after one morning of field work, I receive a text from my Farmer: ‘problems’ (he has always been a man of few words).  I lean over and tell my “anxious-to-ride-the-combine” three-year-old grandson, ‘Papa is having trouble with the beans today’.  This wise little man (who has been listening to farmer-talk) replies, ‘that’s ‘cuz the beans are p’bly not brown enough’.

And he is right, the beans are not dry enough, and our harvest will have to wait a day or two.  But whether the corn and the beans yield an abundance or not, we are blessed.  Yes, we are.

Photo Credit: Jon Bunting , Creative Commons

I Had to Quit Blogging

quit-blogging

I was thirty years old when I gave my life to Jesus. After three decades of living only for myself, there was a lot to unlearn.

I knew I had been given a new heart; I was a new creation.  Not just because the Bible told me so, but because I felt it in my spirit.  It was a moment that happened that could never un-happen.

But living from this new creation heart? I had no clue how to do that.

The answer came six months later.

I walked away from the one thing I thought gave me my identity: my blog.

I started out blogging about single motherhood and my adventures in dating and parenting.  I created my blog out of boredom and loneliness one night and soon I wasn’t lonely anymore. I began to tweet and fellow tweeters became my best friends. They were people I had never actually met of course, but people with the ability to validate me unlike anything I had ever experienced.

I got used to the validation. It felt good to be seen, for the mess of my life as a single mother to be accepted, for the unsung  beauty of my life to be celebrated.

Every retweet, comment, and spike in my stats felt like a meal I could feast on. For all the feelings of rejection I had packed on, for all the uncertainty I felt about my worth, finally a deep need to be wanted and to belong was being filled.

But the more I feasted, the hungrier I got. And the meals started feeling like mere morsels. I couldn’t write enough, or tweet enough, to keep the craving  pangs at bay.

My blog became my life.

Even as I fell in love with my new husband, and my whole world began to change, expand, brighten, I still wouldn’t loosen my grip to my online life. My cherished identity as “mom” wasn’t enough for me either. The only identity that mattered was being a personality in cyberspace.

And then I met Jesus and heard all about how he loved me, and how loved me so much he wanted my identity to rest firmly in Him.

But at home when I sat down at my laptop and opened WordPress to write, I lost who I was in Him. Or maybe I didn’t lose Him in the writing, but I surely lost Him in the obsessive follow-up to that writing.

The rush of being wanted, the comfort of belonging, the thrill of being liked for my words and thoughts — I was dependent on it. And on the days I wrote something that fell flat to my audience, I was crushed by it. If ever I heard crickets after a post went live my whole day would be ruined.

Even at church I  couldn’t praise or worship unless I was celebrating my own glory.

This was big problem.

I knew it. But I didn’t not know what to do about it.

“Why don’t you quit blogging?” My husband asked me one evening.

It was my birthday, and I was in tears yet again about my good-for-notin blog. Ever since I pronounced my new love for Jesus my readers began dropping like flies. This broke my heart. I wanted both loves.

But Jesus makes it clear you can’t serve two masters. In Matthew 6:24 he was talking about money, but he could have just as equally been talking about fame on the internet.

And I knew my blog had to go.

I surrendered my hopes and plans as a writer and laid my blog down at the foot of the cross. I turned it off. Shut it down.

And I didn’t expect to go back.

What I didn’t know then, is that God asked me to lay it down, not because it was bad for me, or because it couldn’t be used by Him. He asked me to lay it down because He was jealous for me. He wanted me to find, and know, and live freely from my identity in him, not in anything else — even the very things he has given me as gifts.

Our stories are gifts from God. And I call myself a “writer” because God has blessed me with a love for, and an ability with, words. Writing is a blessed gift.

But even good gifts don’t make great identities.

Ironically, God has invited me back to this public space of sharing my writing online. And with fear and trembling I have returned, holding tight to what I have learned about what it means to live from my “new creation” heart. For me it means I stand firm in my identity in Christ and I use the gifts God has given me, not as fishing lines for validation, but as instruments for his glory.

I am His. And if I am His, my stories and words are His as well.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez , Creative Commons

I Didn’t Wear Socks to Church

socks

I had never done anything like this before it before. Every Sunday, for 29 years, I had woken up, put on virtually the same clothes, and gone to virtually the same church. But this Sunday, it just hit me. It was time to change. So I did.

So I didn’t wear socks to church.

Now, some of you might be thinking this isn’t a big deal, that in fact it’s the furthest thing from a big deal. But for me, it was monumental. If that sounds weird to you, it’s okay. It probably sounds as weird as I felt walking into the sanctuary of a church with feet clad only in my Toms. I felt naked. Not literally, obviously. I was fully clothed.

But I felt completely exposed.

As silly as it may seem, I felt like a degenerate. I just knew I had to do it.

For 29 years I had gotten up every Sunday morning, gotten dressed, put on shoes and socks, and gone to church. I don’t know why the socks part stuck out. Maybe because it was something I knew I could change. I’d been working on change for the past few months — working to change churches, change my way of thinking, and apparently even change the way I dressed.

I left the church where I had been spent the better part of a decade. I’d never been church hunting before. I’d changed churches, but always with family, always following my parents. Now I was alone, without a church.

There were all these firsts for me. Everything was changing.

I tried new churches, different churches, opening my mind to different ways of preaching, worshiping and dressing, and (I’m almost afraid to admit this) even not going at all.

I lived most of my life in the Southern Baptist Tradition, where attendance is next to godliness and “Sunday Best” is a not a suggestion. If you’re wondering how strange this made me (you may not be, after the sock confession) I was the kind of person who would actually skip church before attending church sockless. (I know, I’m such a rebel.)

The socks were just a small part.

The sock thing is probably the smallest outward evidence of something that’s been going on underneath for a long time: A reassessment, not so much of the deeper convictions of my faith but in how I’ve practiced it, what I’ve been taught makes someone a “good” Christian.

A lot has changed, mostly for the better I’d say.

But with all that has changed, I still find myself going to old habits, old ways of thinking. Which is why I felt so exposed that Sunday morning, certain someone would notice and say something and maybe ask me to go home. I felt naked walking to my seat, standing in worship.

And then, strangely enough, I didn’t feel anything.

I felt comfortable, normal. I left and no one said a word. There were no accusing stares or pointed fingers. No one asked me to go home. Maybe that says a lot for the church where I was visiting, or maybe I simply faced my own paranoia and realized what it was — paranoia. Not real. Unfounded.

As my sister pointed out later: “Jesus didn’t wear socks to church.”

“Perhaps,” I told her, “but I wonder if he would have walked in with Calculus Toms…”

Food for thought, nonetheless.

[photo:Chelsea Intal ,Creative Commons]

What I Learned From Almost Drowning

drown

Swimming pools were a rare event in my childhood, but one particular pool stands out in my mind. A party was in full swing, adults flung all over the area, lounging or talking. Kids were largely left to their own devices.

With no formal swimming lessons, I was commanded to stay in the shallow end. Which I did. Sort of. Except that, even then, I knew “shallow” was a relative term, so I held onto the edge of the pool and inched along it. Some might call it pride. Girls were probably involved. Either way, I was nearly to the ladder at the far end of the pool, the deep end, when my hand slipped.

Just the one, but as I surged to re-grip the tiles, my remaining hand slipped.

Just like that, my head slipped below the water’s surface.

I remember straining, kicking, wracking my body to climb the water that seemed to pull me down. But what I remember most clearly is sticking my hand out of the water as high as I could. I was pleading with all my being that my dad would see me, that someone, anyone, would save me.

As the strength drained from my body, my arm gradually followed me into the depths. First the elbow. Then the forearm. Then my wrist. My knuckles. I remember distinctly noting when the water finally covered the last tip of my longest finger.

I gave my soul to God in that moment. I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m dying young. Alone at the bottom of a pool.”

Suddenly I wasn’t praying that my dad would save me.

I was praying that God would save me. I didn’t know how. I didn’t honestly care, but my whole being was fixed on him. “God help me!” My prayer was frantic, determined, at first. But as I sank further, my prayer drifted slowly into something more feeble. My tiny lungs were collapsing under the strain, as was my little prayer.

Mine was a mouse’s prayer. Still, it had the same form: “God help me.”

I survived. Obviously. At the last desperate moment I felt the surrounding waters seethe. Strong arms lifted me against the water’s pressure and onto the pool’s edge. After I coughed up the swallowed water and terror, I opened my eyes and saw Dad, beleaguered but relieved, fully clothed and dripping wet.

There have been a few times in my life when I prayed that tiny prayer “God help me” with urgency.

The most recent occasion for this prayer was illness: A different form of drowning.

I suffered a health collapse so rapid that within a few short weeks, I could barely read, speak, walk, or eat. Nearly overnight, I developed unexplainable Parkinson-like tremors in my hands, head, and torso. No one knew why. It was like God plunged me into the waters and then he turned his back and walked away. He took with him the hills, the songbirds, and the sunshine slung over his shoulder.

I was left alone in the dark. Dead.

I’ve since decided that drowning is, perhaps, the best thing that ever happened to me.

If it weren’t for that specific suffering in my life, I don’t think I would know who I really was. I don’t think I would know how to pray urgently. Stripped of my ambition, professional preening, and basic animal functions, I discovered my neediness. I can try to ignore my neediness, or get through it, or conquer it, but when you’re drowning, you can’t pretend anymore.

I’m not in charge. I’m not in control. Thank God.

Drowning helped me see, finally, what God sees all the time when he looks at me.

I am a frail man. I am a needy man. I am a destitute man. I am a man who wants peace and hope and is finding them most when I embrace my neediness.

I am finding them most at the bottom of the sea.

[photo:Marcelo Braga ,Creative Commons]