I AM first

“I AM first.

I AM.  I go before you–ahead of you.  Wherever you go, I AM already there.  I AM in the darkest of places ready to hold you and carry you through to the light.  I AM before you, behind you, above you, and below you.  I lead you, protect you, shelter you, and hold you up.  You don’t have to beckon me to appear in the dark of night.  I AM already with you.

I AM.”

Satan knows how to get to me.  When he does it, he hits hard.  Really hard.  It always follows the same pattern.  I will be working harder than normal, giving it my all, more tired than normal, more stressed than normal, juggling work, home, church obligations, finances, unexpected trials, and—-  Discouraging whispers turn into booming shouts reminding me of how inadequate, fat, ugly, stupid, incapable, and annoying I am.  I’ve always really struggled with self-confidence, so that one is easy for him.  But if that weren’t enough, he starts to tell me that because I am so inadequate and stupid, that I’m worthless.  “God can’t use you.  You are a failure.  You made too many mistakes in college–just look at all of the un-Christian things you did.  You are an impostor.  Look at how stupid you are.  You can’t do anything right.  Don’t even try to call someone to talk with, because they don’t care.  They don’t want to be bothered with you, and neither does God.  God forgives other people, and maybe He forgave you, but He is going to punish you forever.  Why do you think you don’t have children yet?  Why do you think things are like they are?  It’s your fault, you worthless piece of trash.”

I used to be better at reaching out.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made a conscious effort to not talk about what bothers me deep down.  Any time I do open up, I feel incredibly guilty after I’ve done it.  Now, truthfully, I needed to learn to hold it in better.  I was a typical artsy, sensitive girl who lived life on the Texas Giant of emotional roller coasters, and let the whole world know it.  That was a little much.  I mean…yikes.  God calls us to have self-control, and I needed some emotional self control, but I think sometimes, Satan grabs a hold of our efforts and tries to make us go too far–so far that we don’t reach out to a sister in Christ.  Or even to our husbands.  That we internalize and spiral down so far that we are drowning so quickly we almost can’t reach up.

I’m treading in deep stuff, I know.  But I don’t think I’m the only one who experiences Satan trying to keep us from what God has planned for us.  Maybe if we talked about our struggles like this sometimes, so many young people wouldn’t be convinced to take their own lives.  The last few weeks have been some of the hardest of my adult life.  I won’t go into it here, but trust me, they have been really hard.  Partly because of things that have happened and things I had to deal with, but also because in the midst of it, Satan was playing dirty with me, and I didn’t fight back at first.

I know spiritual warfare is real.  It is very real.  I also know that God was fighting for me the entire time I wasn’t fighting for myself.  When I finally cried out, God spoke.  He spoke those words I quoted at the top of the page, right there in the cab of my husband’s truck, in the dark, as I was driving to pick him up from work.  “I AM…”  Sometimes He speaks in quiet whispers and feelings, but this time, it was like He spoke with a bold, loving, booming voice that covered me with its power and love.  God always IS.  He was, and he will be, but He IS.  Right now, with me, with you, and He goes before us in every situation we pass through.  I envisioned this picture of me having to walk into the dark, knowing I had to, but seeing God standing before me, holding out His hand, beckoning me to take hold.

I think a lot of times, we look at dark situations as a place where we are all alone, trying to fend off Satan by ourselves until we call out to God to swoop us up out of them.  I was reminded that we are not alone, and rarely are we swooped out of difficult situations, but that God goes before us into every tunnel. He will lead the way and hold us up, if we will only take His hand.  We have to be the ones to accept the Hand, and we have to be the ones to keep hold of the Hand.

” 38For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Romans 8:38-39

 

 

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The Mighty Assumption

 

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As Christians, we spend a lot of time talking about our thoughts and actions, about how harmful gossip is, and about our roles as Christian men and women.  Something I hear very little talk about, though, is the subject of assumptions.  More specifically, assumptions about people we encounter. I had a rather funny conversation today with a colleague that got me to thinking about how much we wrongly assume about each other. This colleague came in the office, and being a typical Southern man who likes to eat, commented on my lunch and asked who made it.  When I told him that I did, he said, “You cook!?”  We aren’t currently speaking.  Just kidding.  We are.  Sort of…  Truthfully, I wouldn’t expect him to know that I cook.  He only sees me at work, dressed up, doing work stuff, and unless you tell men things directly, they will never know.  I’ve never told him how much I love to cook, so of course, he had no idea.  And no, I’m not mad him.  Hehe.  🙂

Because I’m a thinker, though, I did start to think a little deeper about assumptions.  People seem so quick to view and categorize others, that they never end up getting to actually know the person they have just assumed they know all about.  I’ve been guilty of this more times that I would care to admit, but I think we all do it.  As young children, one of the first things we are taught is to categorize, group, and sort, so it is probably only natural that we take it a little too far into categorizing, grouping, and sorting people, too.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t usually work out too well with people.

In college, my roommate and I both drove a Lexus.  Neither of us acquired them new, and for both of us, it was just the car that God happened to provide for us at the time.  Many of our neighbors assumed we were just spoiled little rich girls, and made some fairly nasty comments without even getting to know us, just because of the cars we drove.  We couldn’t even get to know some of our neighbors because they were so hung up on assuming who we were because of what we drove.  If they knew the truth, they would know that the roommate’s Lexus had 290,000 miles on it, and I am still driving mine, ten years later.  We were tired music majors who penny pinched, cooked, and watched the Food Channel and PBS when we weren’t practicing and doing homework.

Does any of that really matter?  Nope.  People are people and people are broken.  What does bother me, though, is how much we miss out on because of assumptions like that.  There could have been some really nice relationships in the neighborhood if it weren’t for that, but they never happened.  We had a wonderful relationship with the older couple across the street–the couple who couldn’t have cared less what we looked like, or what cars we drove, or whether we grew up in Mockingbird Heights or the gutter.  We always knew that Mr. Ed (yep–Mr. Ed.  We called his wife Mrs. Ed, but I couldn’t tell you their last name for the life of me…)  was there for us, and I’d like to think that maybe we made their lives a little less lonely.

It seems like the harsher and more misguided the assumptions get, the more hurtful it gets for both the one being assumed about and the one doing the assuming.  There was a time when I almost allowed others’ actions based on untrue assumptions tear apart our marriage.  I know that I’ve made some gravely wrong assumptions about people, and it took years for me to mend the damage I did.  In fact, there are things that I am still trying to mend over making and acting on hurtful assumptions years ago.  Had I listened to what God had to say about a situation, or asked for wisdom to see the person’s heart, I doubt I would have ever headed down the rabbit trail of assuming things.

I have several friends who are the type who are very reserved until they feel comfortable around someone.  Many times, these people are kind of hard to get to know at first, and hard to read at first.  Once you get to know them, though, the reservations are gone, and this once very quiet and formal person is now outgoing, talkative, and relaxed, and oftentimes, incredibly funny.  I happen to know that my friends who are like this struggle with people making assumptions about them that aren’t true.  Some I just find funny, like those people who say, “Oh, she is just so sweet and quiet.”  I’d love to say back, “Well clearly you’ve never really talked to her, or you would know that she is sweet but definitely not quiet!!”  I’ve also heard people say much more hurtful things like, “Oh, well she is just a cold person” or “She hardly said a word.  She is so rude.”  The truth is, if people got off of the first-impression assumption train and make some conversation, they would see that these people just have a hard time knowing what to say at first, or they have a hard time letting their guard down, or they just get nervous around new people.  I wonder how often valuable friendships are missed out on because people aren’t given enough of a chance?

In an effort to not be an “assumer,” I think I notice more than I used to.  I see things all the time that people do to rob each other of a blessing:

  • People assume that people who financially struggle are always irresponsible.
  • People assume that people who are financially well-off are always going to be rude and selfish.
  • People assume that people who are in the ministry are perfect and never need sleep.
  • People assume that people who have physical limitations also have mental limitations.
  • People assume that people who are developmentally disabled are incapable of doing anything.
  • People assume that if a young woman isn’t married by a certain age, that there is something wrong with her, or that she doesn’t want to be married.
  • People assume that those with big families are somehow foolish and misguided as to how that happens, because “who would want that many kids!?”
  • People assume that those without children choose that on purpose.

If we make assumptions that stifle our ability to have relationships with others, do we make assumptions that stifle our ability to have a healthy relationship with God?  Do we make assumptions about scripture, or how strong our faith is, or how obedient we are?  Do we make assumptions about what is permissible and what isn’t, and what is right for our family without praying for and seeking God’s guidance through His word?

Assumptions are immediate, but relationships are more like those elephant ears above.  They start out as bulbs, but with a little effort, time, and nourishment, they transform into something no one would have ever expected on a first impression.

 

Strange Packages

Apples

Five inches of water in the tent.  Five.  “Record-breaking rain in North Georgia and the Carolinas.”  Someone told me there was 28 inches in 36 hours where we were.  Regardless of the measurement, I can attest to the fact that there was about 27,000 tub fulls of rain.  While there was a hurricane dumping tons of water on the Southeast, we were camping where the hurricane was dumping tons of water.

No, we aren’t crazy.  Yes, we checked the weather.  Unfortunately, to get a camping space (let alone a hotel room) in the Blue Ridge while the leaves are turning requires a reservation months in advance, so we didn’t have much of a choice about the bad timing.  The trip was already scheduled and paid for, so we packed up and hoped for the best.  This disastrous-on-the-outside camping trip turned out to be one of the most wonderful blessings-on-the-inside weekends I’ve ever had.

It started out beautifully.  In fact, we had one really, really nice day up in the mountains.  The air was cool, the sky was overcast, the leaves were turning, and it was just…perfect.  We met friends that we planned to meet, and met lots of others that we didn’t know were coming.  Our camps were set up, supper was done, a campfire was roaring, and we got to relax by the fire.  Ahhh….  But then, sprinkle, sprinkle, roar through the canyon, and DOWNPOUR!!!  That downpour is still going as I type this three days later.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of blessing in this, and I’ll be honest–when I woke up the next morning to the pool in the tent, wet boots, wet clothes, and a broken zipper on the tent door, I was NOT feeling the blessing.  In fact, I cried.  And cried, and cried.  I wasn’t really crying about the rain.  I was crying about a long, stressful summer, too much lost sleep, too much self-imposed pressure to be productive, and the cold rain was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  When I was younger, I never really understood what my grandma meant when she would say, “I just need a good cry” in her sweet, West Virginia accent, but as an adult, I definitely understand.  I needed a good cry, so in my usual style, I took it to the extreme, since that is what I do with everything, and had a good old-fashioned sob fest.  Twice.

I’ll spare the rest of the pathetic details, but needless to say, after fighting it, we finally decided to cut our losses and come home.  Before you laugh at us for having no idea what we were doing, just hold your horses.  I grew up camping, and am no stranger to making due, and my husband is a great outdoorsman.  Unfortunately for us, his intense, blizzard-proof tent had already been through a lot of New Mexico wind, snow, rain, and ice, and it choose just this particular trip to give up the ghost.  I’ll throw a bone for Honey, though–his fire that he built on the only night we got to have one burned for four hours in the rain! We were all huddled under a canopy trying to stay dry, but that hickory-wood fire burned with steady flames all night.  He’s a good man to have around, even if he did think I was being over-dramatic about the amount of water in the tent at first…

Like any woman, I felt much better and much more rational after I was done with my sob fest .  I went back to wanting to make the best of things, and suddenly, I started to see the blessings.  We were there with lots of people we loved.  We had some wonderful conversations with our friends, and played with sweet little girls.  The campfire didn’t get rained out completely, and we managed to get in one round of s’mores before the downpour.  I got in one gloriously bodacious nap in the woods, complete with the good-sleep-snoring that only happens when it’s the best kind of sleep.  (in case I hadn’t blown it for some of you already, my ladylike facade just got carried away with that last sentence.)  I even got to cook my big breakfast outside, which was really fun!  The rain was still coming down, but we were cozied up under the canopy with warm stoves and aromas of fried potatoes and bacon wafting out as we drank our coffee.  Pretty good when you think of it that way.

That afternoon when we were still thinking we would try to salvage our camp, a friend hopped out in the rain to help put up a tarp to cover the table.  By the time he was finished, he was soaked, but helped with willingness anyway.  The Navy knot-tying skills got to make an appearance, and are some of the most impressive skills I’ve ever seen!  After we finally decided to throw in the sopping wet towels and head home, we still got to do some shopping, apple-picking, and do some barbecue and fried pie eating with our dear friends before it was time to tear down our camp.

As we stared to tear down, a flashlight beamed at us through the rain, and because we live in Georgia, the normal response to anyone approaching, regardless of whether or not you can even see who is coming,  is a slow “Hey” spread out through a quadruplethong vowel (in case you are wondering, that is a double-diphthong).  In answer to that all-welcoming greeting was another couple from our church who showed up with kindness, flashlights, boiled peanuts, and helping hands to tear down our camp.  On their vacation, they chose to help us tear down our camp–in the rain, in the dark, and almost in the middle of the night.  We didn’t ask, they just gave.  Amazingly enough, it was not only extremely helpful, but the activity I was dreading suddenly became fun!  We got the camp torn down and the truck packed in record time, but not without a break for me to be tormented and chased with what I assumed was the dreaded frog-creature, but what actually turned out to be a poor, innocent, slimy salamander.

As we were leaving these folks stopped, after all of the kindness and laughter, to pray with us and give us coffee and hugs to send us on our way.  Another family offered for us to stay in their trailer when they found out we were packing up, and another was upset that we decided to pack up without saying anything, because they would have helped, too.  As we drove away that night, I suddenly couldn’t help but laugh with joy.  I sat sopping wet and cold, but haven’t felt more cared about, loved, and accepted as I did that night.  We experienced the meaning of Christian love and charity so many times that weekend from so many people, that I am overwhelmed by the thought.  The selfless giving–the idea of someone willingly making themselves uncomfortable to help a brother and sister in Christ, the laughter and jokes to make it all bearable, and the direct prayer over the whole thing is something that should never be taken for granted.  I am overwhelmed, thankful, encouraged, challenged, and appreciative of how beautifully these men and women faithfully imaged Christ this weekend.

They say that large blessings come in small packages, but sometimes, large blessings come in large, wet, funny-shaped packages.  In this case, our strange package was a hurricane, a tent-turned-bathtub, and a beautiful group of people brought together under a bond of the church family and a love for the outdoors.  It just goes to show you that even in small things, what looks like a dreadful situation might transform into the most beautiful blessing we have ever received.  If we can slow down long enough to accept the situation given us and open our eyes, we will start to see the overwhelming blessings right where we sit.

Just to be clear, though, I will never, ever, ever go camping in a hurricane again.

Hypocrite? There’s room here.

Photo credit: google.com

Photo credit: google.com

At the end of May, I was having lunch with an out-of-town friend who asked me what had caused such rapid growth in our church in recent years.  At the time, I didn’t really have a good answer for her.  In fact, I pretty much avoided the question.  I could have gone on about all the wonderful things about our church, and what a change it has brought about in our lives, but because this was a friend I was still very much getting to know that day, I was consciously trying not to prattle on about things she and her husband might not be interested in.  Usually, I find it easy to dive right in to a deep, spiritual conversation, and wanted so badly to talk about the people, discipleship, teaching, and sisterhood, but because some are put off by heavy conversation too soon, I instead answered with some generalized, surface remark and changed the subject.

On the drive home to Georgia, I sat wondering why I had answered the way I did–why I avoided sharing anything from my heart at all.  After quite a while of raffling between regretting being shallow and feeling like an idiot, I finally came to a two-fold conclusion:  I didn’t answer because at the time, the answer in my heart was more of a bucket of wonderful abstract thoughts and feelings, rather than a concrete opinion, and second, because I couldn’t have given a concise answer, I felt like those thoughts from my heart would have been looked at as irritating, unnecessary, and just…stupid. Would the kind people I was sharing lunch with have responded that way?  Doubtfully.  My friend wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t want me to answer, but I somehow convinced myself in the moment that no one would want to hear anything I had to say from deep down.

As the time went on, I occasionally thought about that answer I never gave, and kept wishing I could have answered it.  Eventually, though, my days led to a summer that left me in a place of being completely overwhelmed, too many demands on my time, too many things to handle, and not enough sleep.  At that moment, I couldn’t have cared less about answering the church growth question for myself.  Oddly enough, it was me being pushed to my limit from two different directions that God used to show me how this body of believers was held together, and why it kept drawing more in. 

From one direction, I was just tired.  Tired of thinking and planning, tired of having to make unkind people happy, tired of remodeling, tired of always being behind on chores because of the remodeling, tired of having a perpetually dirty house because of the remodeling and the being behind, tired of arthritis screaming at me for doing all of the remodeling work myself, tired of being at work until dark…and the list goes on.  Before I knew it, it was time to plan for children’s choirs at church, and I wasn’t sure that I could handle planning and giving time and energy to anything else.

From the other direction came the “old fear monster” renewing himself.  The fear of musical failure.  The fear of feeling like everything I do has to be over the top, lest it not be pleasing enough.  The fear of judgement from music ed colleagues and mentors, who might not think I’m teaching enough music ed in church choir.  The fear acquired from past church circles that to be valid–a valid Christian, teacher, church member–we must have reached the “arrival point.”  No room for imperfections, insecurities, or grace.  The fear that if I make a mistake, that no one will forgive me and give me a second chance, and most deeply, the fear that I am dumb and have nothing worth giving.

Some of these fears are just things that Satan whispers in the ear of the perfectionist.  Some of these fears, however, are fears that  I call learned fears–fears that come from previous situations that cut our hearts deeply, and that Satan uses to try to push us backwards.   As most women know, when either of these fears come crashing down on us at a time when we are over-stretched and sleep deprived, we usually don’t handle things terribly well.  We do a lot of “freaking out,” but not a lot of listening to what God might have to say to us.  (I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who hops in this boat from time to time.)

I think it was pretty clear to several that I was overwhelmed, and a couple of folks requested that I call them this week to talk things over.  In the past, this meant a reprimand, so I tried to prepare myself to listen to my failings that I was already acutely aware of, and just made the calls.  What I heard on the other end, instead of the reprimand I had expected, was affirmation, kindness, love, understanding, and sharing.  These ladies shared with me their own fears, “old fear monsters,” experiences, and hearts.  We laughed about how we all try to do too much, and graciously figured out how to scale things down to what was realistically possible in this particular season.

What I learned here, was that everyone around me was freely willing to admit that they are just as imperfect as I am, and they don’t have to be ashamed about it.  This is a body of people who recognizes how much we all need God’s grace daily, but at the same time, that we should daily try to image God by our actions, thoughts, and words.  We are a group with high behavioral standards, but a group who lovingly and quickly forgives when we fail.  We are a group of understanding servants, who live life in the real world, and we all understand what it means to struggle, but instead of hiding the struggle, we share our experiences and our resources to help another.  We disciple each other, and learn with each other.  No one is expected to “do it all,” “have it all,” or “know it all” to be valid, but everyone seems to want to help, give, and learn more.

Is our church perfect?  No.  Is there any member who is perfect?  No way.  We are a group of flawed humans–or as the world likes to say, hypocrites–who constantly make mistakes, but what separates this group from others, to me, is that instead of hiding our shortcomings, we help each other grow past them.  We forgive each other, love each other, and show our caring for each other, through verbal grace, through arriving at a home on a Saturday to lend a helping hand, or by simply spending time with each other and encouraging one another.

As far as those old fears go, well, most of them just needed to get put into perspective.   I know I’m not stupid, and I may not be a soprano bound for the Met, but that isn’t God’s musical calling for my life. Will this semester be heavy on music education?  Probably not–you can’t do much in 20 minutes.  Somehow, though, if older boys are willingly singing and participating, and three-year-olds are singing little solos in a singing game, things can’t be going too badly.  If we can teach children about the Lord, teach them that church is a good place to be, and put a love for music in their hearts at an early age, I think that’s pretty good.  After all, who are we supposed to be pleasing?

If we are afraid of sharing our hearts because we are afraid people will react to us with annoyance, harshness, or a good eye-roll, we are selling many people short, who probably would love to hear what we had to say, and who would never react cynically.  As far as the people who would react cynically, those probably aren’t the people whose reactions and opinions matter.  Considering that cynicism is usually the fruit of emptiness, those people should never have power over my heart and how I choose to speak to others.

And to finally answer that question that was unassumingly asked in May, I believe that God is present in the people, and that spirit draws others in.  This church is a body of people who are trying, stumbling, learning, forgiving, and loving, with scripture as their guide.  With every corporate song sung together, every disagreement that gets resolved, every roof that gets put on,  every meal that gets delivered and shared, and every verse of the Bible that gets learned, the people take one more step forward in the footpaths of Christ.   Instead of a church that tries to look good and look smart under a veil of ritual and cynicism, it is a church that tries to do right and good by carrying out God’s commands, and become smarter by studying and discipling each other in the Word.

We share our lives, our burdens, our joys, and our hearts, as we try, with God’s grace, to be what He calls us to be.  We stumble and forgive, and help each other to keep trying.  And, as Brian Moore would say, “There’s always room for one more.”