The Great Mercy of God

Rain fell softly as we waited in line among ten-thousand of our neighbors from the Nashville area. Music was promised inside Bridgestone Arena. Music different from what normally is heard in that huge venue. Music that would reach out and woo the seeker, hopefully, into surrendering their lives to Jesus Christ.

My daughter and her friend were all smiles, excited to see artist whose music they loved to sing along with on the radio…Mandisa, Danny Gokey, The Newsboys, Rend Collective, etc…while my friend and I enjoyed their bubbling excitement.

I had dropped them off at the entrance so they could get a place in line while I parked the car two blocks away. I walked quickly in the rain, the hood of my raincoat pulled over my head. As I spotted my friend waving from near the front (yay!) I noticed a loud yelling coming from my right. I turned to find the source and my heart sunk as I realized what was going on.

Two men, dressed in black and white, one standing on a platform with a megaphone to his mouth and the other on the ground beside held large signs with red and black letters reading “SIN NOT” among other messages urging people to turn to God.

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But nothing about the way these men were evangelizing would ever be effective.

There was so much anger.

“DO YOU PARENTS NOT FEAR THE LORD? DO YOU NOT TEACH YOUR CHILDREN THE FEAR OF THE LORD?”

My friend shook her head as I joined them in line. “Do they not realize we are taking them to a Christian concert?”

But I knew they did. Unfortunately, I knew the place from where these men spoke…and sang.

Oh, yes, one was singing. He screamed out, like a curse, “Oh how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.” I never dreamed that song could sound angry or vicious, but somehow this man managed to make it so. Over and over, his voice grinding in anger and hatred, he screamed every word of every line to the crowd who, for the most part, ignored him.

We finally got inside and found good seats, spending the next four and a half hours hearing one band after another share their gifts and their stories. Stories of brokennes, redemption, and hope. Stories shared in humility with the desire to see the young people in that arena grasp the life-giving truth of God’s perfect love. Stories that caused hands to raise in surrender and eternities to be forever changed.

And I thought, as we left singing and smiling, that is the difference between legalism and grace.

I grew up in a legalistic tradition. Rules were expected to be upheld in order to achieve salvation. One wrong move and, poof, you were back to square one and you’d better confess and repent or else.

I went to sleep at night afraid. I prayed God would forgive me for anything I didn’t know I had done wrong on top of all the things I was aware of. I saw God as an angry old man “up there” who was checking off my sin-boxes as I committed them. One after the other the list of my sins piled up and I knew I would never measure up.

Might as well give up.

Oh sure, I went to church each Sunday just in case that would help. If I died in a car accident on the way home at least I’d been in church, right? I did not understand how God could love me.

I didn’t even like me most of the time.

But He did, and He does.

Truth flooded my heart when I was twenty-one years old. The realization, at last, that Jesus had paid it all and that I was free would completely change my life.

It would take more than ten years for me to shake the bondage of legalism, though, and I admit I still struggle with it as I raise my kids because, well, that is our fleshly default. We like things to look “right” because if the appearances are good we can pretend that everything is in alignment in our lives even when what is under the surface is so very confused, possibly even lost.

But you cannot force the heart.

You cannot fake faith.

Screaming and yelling hellfire and brimstone will only change behavior. It will never save souls.

I wish I could have spoken to those men. I know they did what they did out of concern for that crowd. I wish I could have explained to them a life changed, a heart set free, a holy calling gladly pursued out of gratitude and love for the One who died for me. I wish I could have explained to them that legalism only breeds sin. I wish I could lead them here, to Romans 8:1-11, to read for themselves God’s heart for them so they could be set free to lead others to Christ in love, humility and grace, trusting the Holy Spirit to change hearts and lives instead of their own angry, accusatory screams.

Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. For the mind-set of the flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. Now if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you. (Emphasis mine)

Should we fear God? Absolutely. In the great words of C.S. Lewis, “He is not safe but He is good.”

Is there consequence for sin? You bet. God is love and out of that great love he disciplines us. Without acknowledging Him as Father and Savior we are hopeless and lost in sin. He does not want anyone to perish, and gives every human being opportunity to know Him, even on a mustard-seed level. But a healthy fear of God leads us to the throne of mercy. It is surrender, it is the realization that we need Jesus, that without Him we cannot overcome sin, serve God and impact this world for Christ. It is ALL on Him. We are only vessels.

He who raised Christ from the dead is the one who brings us to life through His Spirit who lives in us. The first step is inviting Him in, giving Him the reins, stepping back and asking the simple question…”What now, Lord? I’ll do whatever you want. Just speak, for your servant is listening.”

And the Law? It will remind us of our great need. It will give us the boundaries within which we can live. It will frame our understanding of all of Scripture. And as we learn and grow in faith we will be brought to our knees in gratitude more and more for the One who perfectly fulfilled the Law because we simply could not.

His righteousness is exchanged for our sin.

His grace, for our failures.

His life forever traded for our death.

And from that place of mercy we cry out praise to the One who loves us completely. We share our stories of redemption with the world who desperately needs hope. We humbly take the hand of our friend and say, will you come with me? Will you let me lead you to the feet of Jesus?

“Oh, how I love Jesus…because He first loved me.”

(If the video doesn’t load, just click on the words above. You’ll be glad you did.)

 

The Word for 2019

Every year, as December draws to a close, I ask God to give me a word for the coming year. It’s a little leap of faith, an exercise in expectation as I press in to hear His voice and fight to suppress my own.

I look for it everywhere, in songs, books and conversations. I listen for a consistent word bubbling to the surface through the swirling buzz of the world around me. I intentionally seek quiet and try to patiently trust Him to grant me this small thing.

But is it ever really a small thing when the Creator of the entire universe speaks to one of his children?

Last week it came softly. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, or if I was even really hearing God, so I sat on it an waited for more confirmation. There was another word running through my thoughts, as well, so I wanted to be certain before sitting down here to type them out. Over and over the word came, with the second one whispering just behind it, until today.

It hit me like a freight train as one of our pastors gave a much-needed but ouch-you-are-meddling-in-my-life sermon. As he spoke, the words I had been pondering came together as one thought, making sense as to what God is calling me to do and how He wants me to approach this next year.

As I reflect on 2018 I am so grateful. God asked me to seek Him, which I did. (You can read that post here) He blessed me with moments of clarity and joy in the midst of some of the hardest days of my life. He brought me to the end of myself and held me tight as I wept. He also gave me laughter and celebration and a reason to believe He is at work as much as ever, that I can trust Him even when I don’t understand what He is doing and that I can rest assured the ones I love the most on earth are safe in the palm of His hand, regardless of their choices in this world. I sought Him and He allowed me to find Him. That is a good, good year.

My writing has continued each week, as you know, with my focus always being on finding joy in the simple things and living forward into who we will be (because who we are in Christ is who we really ARE). That will not change, but I pray there will be more to it.

You see, I have read too many books and blogs that left me empty and wanting this year, and I do not want to be just another writer encouraging women. (You’ve got encouragement coming out your ears these days, friends.) I want to be a writer who challenges you to think deeply, to love Jesus when everyone else around you has turned their backs, and to pursue the heart of God because, sisters, THAT is where joy will only, truly, be found.

All of nature points to Jesus.  Every creature’s unique and often hilarious design points to Jesus.  The warmth of a child’s embrace points to Jesus. Doubt and suffering also point to Jesus.

As has been spoken to me in three different settings of late, “It is time to pursue the deep things of God.” If what I write makes you feel good but your SELF is still on the throne of your life then I have failed.  

If you walk away from the computer feeling happy and saying, “Jeanine is a really good writer,” well, that is nice but that is not why I am writing.

If what I write does not drive you to seek a more intimate relationship with the Lover of your Soul and turn away from anything that hinders that process, I am just another voice among many feel-good voices telling you to seek self-care when you feel stressed.

To put it bluntly, we don’t need self-care as much as we need an encounter with the Holy Spirit. We need to be fully given to the power of God. Treating the symptoms without getting to the root of the issue will not result in lasting joy. But seeking the deep things of Christ? Really committing to learn the ways of God and live a life of holiness? Training our spirit in the disciplines that will carry us when the storms of life threaten to tear apart everything we have worked so hard to build? THAT is deep and lasting satisfaction. THAT is joy. THAT is what I want to help you do.

So, here we go, 2019. The word for this year is LIGHT, accompanied by the word deep. The Scripture is Matthew 10:27 where Jesus prepares the apostles for the task He has set before them.

And you should proclaim in the bright light of day everything that I have whispered to you in the dark. Whatever whispers you hear—shout them from the rooftops of houses.  

Matthew 10:27 (The Voice Translation)

In the verses leading up to this one, Jesus lets them know, up front, that they will be persecuted for speaking the truth. They are surely going to face the darkest days of their lives. They are going to be driven to their knees in desperation for the strength of God to carry them through the darkness. But, as I have learned this year, God speaks to us in those dark days. We are forced to listen for His voice when we are left with nothing else. In the dark night of the soul, when we cry out for mercy and hope, our faithful Father draws near to us and teaches us the deep things of God. THIS is what He is calling me to this year…to proclaim in the light what I have heard in the darkness. And, friends, I can’t say it any better than what I heard Pastor Mike ask us to say out loud on Sunday morning:

“It’s not about me.”

Friends, it’s about Jesus. All of it. Every experience of my life is meant to bring me closer to the heart of God. He has me here on this earth for one reason and one reason alone…to proclaim to this world that there is only one way to the Father, and that is through His Son, Jesus Christ who lived the life we could not live and died the death we should have died, then rose FROM THE DEAD in victory so that you and I can live forever with Him. Jesus is the LIGHT of the world, sweet friends. Not your favorite blogger or podcaster, not your mama, and not even your pastor. You will never find eternal joy and purpose apart from knowing Jesus. No massage, pedicure or “encouraging” Christian book will ever fulfill you or bring true and lasting satisfaction. Anything that encourages you to put your “self” first is a lie. We are to seek Jesus first. Period.

We have been too easily deceived in our culture as wave after wave of fluffy Christian writing has retrained our thinking and the result is a bunch of women who are all about themselves with a Jesus t-shirt on to make self-love look holy. We use God’s extravagant love for us, his daughters, as an excuse for escaping from the realities of the needs around us because we need “me time” or to recharge. But a spa day cannot fill me with unconditional love for my husband. A girls’ weekend away, pretending that we are single with no kids, will never make me a better and more courageous mother. I can only give out of the overflow of what God does in me. It’s the heart behind what we do that matters. It’s the reason “why” I need to escape that is the issue. What am I escaping from, my calling? My responsibilities? My God?

Taking care of ourselves physically is important, yes. Do not think I am against spa days!  That could not be further from the truth!  (I enjoy them! Really!) In fact, a spa day may not even be your thing. Maybe it’s exercise or reading that is your escape go-to. Maybe it’s a sport or Netflix or a hobby. I’m not against any of those things, but I am against anything that puts a shade over the light that Jesus is trying to shine in and through us. YES he blesses us. YES he wants us to rest. YES we all need a break sometimes.  But I am seeing post after post, book after book, pointing not to Christ as our source of blessing and rest but to self-care and self-love and, well, that is just a pretty, nail-polished form of idolatry with highlights.

We must let Christ shine his light into our hearts. We must choose to pursue the deep things of God first. Lean into Him, pray for Him to expose sin and rip it out of our lives. Be willing to do whatever it takes to walk in the Spirit and share Jesus with a lost and desperate world.

Because, my dear friends and sisters, that is why you and I exist.

I am learning with you on this journey.  It is not easy to keep Jesus the main thing, but I believe, with all that is within me, that it will certainly be worth it. We will stumble and fall, we will inadvertently (maybe even purposefully) dim His light at times, but remember this…

“All things were made through him, and without him was not anything that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  

John 1:3-5 (English Standard Version)

Jesus is the light.  In him is life!  And never forget…the light (Jesus) shines in the darkness and, no matter how much you or I struggle and fail, the darkness has not, nor will it ever, overcome it!

Speak in the light what you have learned in the darkness.  Shout it loud and clear and remember who you are and WHOSE you are!

Happy New Year, dear ones.  May His light shine bright through us as we pursue the deep things of God in 2019.  He is worthy!

The Peace of Advent

Mary’s relationship with her cousin, Elizabeth has been a source of fascination for me as Christmas nears. God provided much-needed community for the mother of Christ in Elizabeth, someone…the only one…who could begin to relate to what Mary had been chosen to walk though. As I tried to imagine their conversations, whispered by firelight after Zechariah was long-asleep, this poem was fashioned:

PEACE.

Who, besides you, would understand?

This holy secret, silent, yet unknown outside of my womb.

The angel spoke your name, Elizabeth.

He told me of your wonder

and of the babe.

Just look at you.

He kicks and your belly writhes and the smile

oh, the smile on your aged face.

Your wrinkles deepen as laugh-light sparks

from your faded eyes.

Renewed, you are.

Made new, fruitful, forever a part of the grand story,

His story,

of redemption.

Hold my hand.

Tell me what I already know

but need to hear afresh.

How God supplies the strength we both will need.

I am not afraid,

yet I am.

The war in my spirit rages

as the flesh across my belly tightens and bulges.

But here you stand before me,

evidence of our God weaving the promise

of atonement within me.

Within us.

These infant sons we bear,

destined for pain.

We walk the first steps with them on a path

rocky with hate and rejection.

Yet I see in you an acceptance

the peace of God that flows through your fingers to mine.

I feel His presence, overshadowed by Him since that night

the Spirit made me His mother.

Who, besides you, would understand?

I find it not a coincidence that you, my cousin, are the bearer

of the messenger.

Two women, forever connected by destiny.

Your companionship eases my heart.

Your trust increases my own.

Your embrace enfolds me in peace

that I may walk with my eyes fixed on this sacred privilege.

Preparing for War

I took my life into my hands and waltzed into Publix on Saturday with the goal of buying a smallish turkey and spiral cut ham (with all the trimmings, of course!) Wandering the aisles in no hurry, for once, I browsed the choices and compared prices.  Too many leftovers would only sabotage all the hard work I have done this year to get into shape.  I determined to refrain from making a huge pan of dressing because, first of all, I don’t need the carbs and, second, my kids won’t touch the stuff despite all the years I have set it before them.

I’m sure it’s a texture issue.

We have dear friends joining us on Thanksgiving day, along with my beloved mama and daddy.  I could not be happier that I will have a table bursting with food and laughter and ten kids running all over my house.  It is going to be delightful.

Delight-full!

I chose a smallish turkey (about ten pounds) and placed it carefully in my basket, moving on to the next aisle.  It should be enough and I can make bone broth from the leftover bones.  That is always a good thing as winter approaches.  As I turned the corner, though, there was a case of huge turkeys awaiting my eyes.  My mouth dropped open and I stood there, momentarily stunned and unsure of how to proceed.  I looked at the little bird in my basket, then up at the huge ones piled up in the freezer case.  I lifted one up and felt it’s weight, more than double the one in my basket.  My mind immediately imagined our table with this as the centerpiece, golden and seasoned and surrounded by sweet potatoes, cranberries, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole and all the pies we have planned.  I looked at this turkey and realized what I held in my hand.

A weapon.

I heard a quote by C.S. Lewis this year at Hutchmoot, on the first night as John Cal invited us to partake in the feast he had spent all day preparing.

“Feasting is an act of war.”

I returned the smallish turkey to it’s former home and replaced it with the huge one.  It is way too big.  (Remember, I also bought a spiral cut ham!) We will be tired of leftovers before it is all consumed.  I will have made soups and sandwiches ad nauseum and, still, it will take up half of my refrigerator before I throw it in a big pot and boil it down to smithereens.

But it will stand, glorius and golden after many hours brined, basted and baked.  It will bless eyes and bellies and surely put us all into a food coma.

And we will fight together, friends and family, against the darkness, pushing back once again as we rehearse for the Great Feast that is to come, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.  Fight hard and fight well!

 

 

The (G)race of Community

Together, we are a coat of many colors gracing the broad shoulders of Jesus.

Today I have the incredible privilege of writing over at The Rabbit Room!  It is truly an honor to be allowed to share this message with such a large audience of artists, musicians, poets and storytellers whom I deeply admire.

I submitted this piece after weeks of mulling it over, writing and rewriting the message God had laid on my heart.  It’s a big topic, one that goes against what the culture is screaming at us but is everything God wants for His Bride, the Church.  Please hop on over there (PUN INTENDED!) and read “The (G)race of Community.”  

Blessings to you, my friends!  May our good God use this offering of words to encourage His people!

Of Autumn and Rest

I took a short drive this morning.  The speed limit is 23 here in our neighborhood.  Not one mile higher.  The teenagers find it binding, I find it delightful.

I love being forced to slow.

Rounding the wide curve, with the pasture to my right, I spotted a neighbor.  Woolen hat pulled low to his eyebrows and two dogs fighting for position as he walked, a bounce in his step on this blustery Autumn day.  He waved and smiled, his cheeks revealing lines created by years of practice.  Such a genuine joy in his face that I couldn’t help but return it.

I was on my way to the gym where I would push and pull and sweat and, strangely, love every minute of it.  But the drive leading up to my session was devoid of stress, beautifully lined with orange-bedecked trees showing off just a little longer.  The horses huddled, two-by-two as the wild wind blew their manes and tails, creating dramatic poses from what would have been simple still-lifes.  The tan one lifted his handsome head and watched me pass by.  I wished I had a few carrots with which to treat him.

I prayed this year for Autumn, that it would be long and not too hot, not too cold.  I selfishly believe God made it perfect just for me.  It is, truly, the most beautiful and bright Autumn I have seen since moving to Tennessee and that is saying a lot.  Tennessee Autumns are generally lovely, but often too short.  Not this year, though.  Autumn came gently and has stayed a nice, long while.  She doesn’t need to hurry on my account, I assure you.

The cooler temperatures energize me.  Daylight savings has come and gone and now the sun sets early, just after 4:30 in the afternoon.  It makes the evenings feel  long and lures me here or to my notebook to write.  I start putting words to page and find myself editing, reshaping the stories and searching for just the right words, knowing they are out there somewhere.

The wind is howling and rain beats against the windows and I give thanks that, despite the stresses and strains of my day, a storm is blowing in and washing everything clean.  Both outside and within me.

And that is a much-needed gift.

Why am I rambling like this?  Well, I have some advice…I hope you will take it:

Step outside today.  Look up, letting your eyes focus as far away as possible.  Notice the clouds, the stars, the way the birds dance before they settle on the highest limb.  Listen to the wind, the train in the distance and the leaves bouncing along the sidewalk.  Let your senses rest and be still.  Wave and smile at your neighbor, then call your friend just to see what she is doing.  No agenda, just easy conversation.  Spend time counting blessings and maybe even write them down.  You’ll need them later, when the blessings are harder to list.  Talk to God about silly things, small things, because He cares about even those things.  Isn’t that incredible?  Breathe and sip tea while unsorted socks wait patiently in the laundry basket.  They aren’t going any where, I promise.  Then walk into the next thing, the awaiting tasks, refreshed and more able to focus because you took that Sabbath moment and gave your Creator a chance to do what He does best…Make all things new.

Hutchmoot 2018

What is a Hutchmoot, you ask?

Ah…where do I start?  How do I describe something so profoundly beautiful and formative?  It’s a conference, sure, but it is so much more.

I will, at the very least, attempt to explain.

More than ten years ago, Andrew Peterson had an idea.

A God-given one, I am certain.

After walking the streets of Oxford, England and realizing the beauty that the community of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and friends had created that still, to this day, brings light and beauty to the Church, he felt the need to foster a creative community for the glory of God right here.  In Nashville.

Thus, the Rabbit Room was born.

As the online community grew and began to thrive, they began to hold conferences, naming them (of all things!) Hutchmoot.

Hutch:  a place where rabbits live

Moot:  an Old English word for meeting place.

If you are a part of the Rabbit Room community, “Hutchmoot” is a synonym for home.

I came with my thirteen year old daughter.  The creative one.  I brought her along for two reasons:

One, she is incredibly artsy and would be the most likely to tolerate the long days and heady conversations because she knows how to keep herself occupied with a sketchbook and pencils.  I felt she just might thrive in the safety of a church full of “creatives” and find her people.

Two, I didn’t want to go alone.

Me…This self-proclaimed extrovert who loves conversation and loud laughter had sudden bursts of introverted shivers when I thought of walking into a room of people with more talent in their pinkies than I have in my entire body.  I felt like a poser, a wanna-be.  I merely wanted to sit in the same space as these gifted ones and listen, hoping to absorb bits of their knowledge and be inspired to cultivate my own.

We arrived Thursday after flying home a day early from our family’s beach vacation.  Due to awakening at 5am to make our early flight we were exhausted, but anticipation fueled us as we made the drive to Franklin, Tennesse from our home just twenty minutes down the road.  Neither of us knew a soul, so I was grateful that we had one another.  Neither of us had any idea what to expect from Hutchmoot, so imagine my joy in realizing that in this place we would find our people and I would leave feeling that I do, in fact, belong.

It will take weeks, maybe even months, to process all that the Lord has done in both of our lives over the course of four beautiful days.

Feasting, music, art, story, laughter, conversation, books, books and more books, and Jesus.  Oh, the talk of Jesus, of God the Creator and the reason He gives these good gifts, these insatiable desires to create beauty.  Every session, every workshop never failed to circle back to the Gospel.  Eyes filled with kindness, words of encouragement to and from complete strangers, hugs and phone numbers exchanged because we just didn’t want this to end…this magic, this feeling, this community.

Hutchmoot is the Bride of Christ at her most beautiful:  serving, loving, sacrificing time and talent and leaning in close over steaming cups of coffee to hear, really hear, the stories of God’s people.  At Hutchmoot you are told you CAN do this beautiful thing.  I now believe God WILL use my writing, that in Him I can finish the book I’ve pecked at for almost two years.  I walked away knowing I am fully able to encourage you, my friends, in your walk with Christ and trust that these words of mine each week will get to the eyes of those whom He intends to read them.

And my daughter?  At Hutchmoot she blossomed and grew.  At Hutchmoot she danced for strangers and came out of her shell to talk the ears off of every adult who would listen and appreciate her art.  Every last one of them listened.   Not a single person failed to appreciate and encourage her childish boldness.  She found her people.  Aslan is on the move.

There is a comfort in being pursued, a rest in feeling known.  To begin a weekend in a room full of strangers and end it surrounded by familiar and dear faces is miraculous.  It is the work of the Holy Spirit and I, for one, am forever changed.

One last thing…as I type these final words the song, “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone” by Andrew Peterson is taking it’s turn on my playlist.  And the answer is yes.  A resounding yes, I do.

My heart is full.  My spirit is grateful.

Until next year, my new, rabbity friends.